Last weekend, the conservative movement in the United States had its greatest event of the year, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) where dozens of politicians and opinion leaders from the Republican Party try to enhance their position within the conservative sphere by meeting with donors, highly motivated activists and addressing the crowd who is watching the conference.
This year, the conference was held in Orlando, and it was a highly anticipated event to forecast the direction of the Republican Party in the future. The last few months have hardly been good for the GOP, the party lost control of the White House and the Senate, and on January 6th a pro-Trump crowd stormed the US Capitol while Congress was fulfilling their constitutional duty of counting the electoral votes sent by the states.
The aftermath of that dreadful day has consumed the GOP over the last few weeks. With Senator Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) saying Trump was “morally responsible” for the attack on the Capitol, while the former president calling the Kentucky senator a “dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack”. Which is why many were looking forwards at the CPAC conference to see how will the party shape itself after this couple of months and which politicians would reap the benefits from the current situation.
After four days of speeches and catchy slogans, there were two clear winners from this year’s CPAC:
Winner 1: Donald Trump
The former president made the first high-stakes public appearance after leaving office on the chaotic days after the Capitol riot. There were many who viewed his reckless and erratic attitude on both January 6th and the months leading to the riot as the final nail in the political coffin of Trump. After all, his general approval ratings when he left office were 38.6% (according to Fivethirteight) and a Pew Research poll showed that 68% of Americans did not want Trump to remain as a major political figure.
Well, those hopes (or fears for others) proved to be short-lived. The former President has a 74% approval rating within registered members of the Republican party, according to a CNBC poll, and his control over the Republican base was shown during the CPAC conference this weekend. He was given the keynote speech of the conference and talked for over an hour Sunday night and was received by thunderous roars and applause by the public congregated at the conference room of the Hyatt Regency hotel.
During his hour-long speech, Trump reassured that he will not start a new party, criticized the Biden’s administration policies, criticized cancel culture, stated that the GOP needed to continue his “America First” policies, condemned several GOP politicians who have opposed him (including the seven Senate Republicans who voted for his conviction), and teased a possible third run for the presidency in 2024.
Trump then won the famous CPAC “straw poll”of possible candidates for 2024, earning a 55% share of the vote, a remarkable feat from a politician who had just a presidential election four months ago. Gov. De Santins was a distant second with 21% of the votes.
Trump is a deeply polarizing figure in American politics, but nobody can deny that he still has a firm grasp on the Republican Party, for better or for worse.
Winner 2: Governor Ron De Santis
Florida’s governor Ron De Santis rose as one of the most promising figures of the conservative movement during this year’s CPAC. First, he had the advantage that the conference was being held in his home state, which has maintained less strict COVID guidelines than many of the Democratic-controlled states, while achieving a lower per capita death rate than those states. Second, he has been able to tap into the anti-establishment feeling that many Trump supporters have while not presenting the personal qualities that also make Trump toxic for many voters.
During his speech at CPAC he said the party should not allow “the return of the failed Republican establishment of yesteryear”, he criticized Big Tech, highlighted his COVID strategy aimed at protecting the vulnerable while keeping the economy afloat, railed against cancel culture, and said that Florida was able to keep their elections running smoothly and transparently.
Governor De Santis had a good run during CPAC and is poising himself as a possible candidate for 2024, either as President or running mate for Trump. He ended up second place in the straw poll behind Trump, and in the hypothetical case of a presidential contest where Trump is not a candidate, De Santis comfortably leads the field with a 43% share of the vote, while Kristen Noem fell in a distant second with 11%.
Now, De Santis should not be popping the champagnes bottles just yet, after all, the 2016 winner of the Straw Poll was Ted Cruz, and we all know how well that go. For De Santis his immediate challenge will be his 2022 reelection race for the governorship in Florida, which he won by lest than 1% in 2018, where we could expect Democrats will try and field a competitive candidate who might be capable of taking the sails off a possible contender in 2024.
If De Santis manages to win reelection, which is not that hard to imagine when you remember that Democrats have been constantly losing statewide elections since 2012, then the Governor will be in a great position for claiming the mantle of leader (or second in command) of the GOP.
2024 is far away and many things can happen between now and then, however, if CPAC tells us anything is that the GOP will -at the minimum- maintain the Trumpy style of politics that took over the party four years ago.