DALLAS – Ex-president Donald Trump will headline the three-day Conservative Political Action Conference at the Hilton Anatole near downtown Dallas.
The event opens at noon on Friday. Trump caps it off Sunday afternoon.
In between, thousands of activists will hear a parade of speakers warn that a dementia-stricken President Joe Biden is leading the country toward socialism and weakness, denouncing “cancel culture” and nursing wounds from the disappointment of losing the White House, Senate and House in the span of one presidential term.
Freshman congressman Ronny Jackson of Amarillo, who as White House physician vouched for Trump’s mental acuity and physical fitness – and has lately demanded that Biden undergo the same battery of cognitive testing – will get two turns on stage.
Donald Trump Jr., an attack dog even by comparison to his pugilistic dad, is a featured speaker.
Ken Paxton, the state attorney general who has been under indictment for six years on felony security fraud charges, scored a 15-minute solo speaking slot on Sunday morning.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Trump’s state campaign co-chair, will open the “America UnCanceled” conference Friday afternoon with a speech titled “Don’t mess with Texas… or America.”
Gov. Greg Abbott will be conspicuously absent even as two primary rivals get spotlights: Allen West, who recently resigned as Texas Republican Party chairman, and former state senator Don Huffines.
“We would of course love to have him here [but] he’s juggling a special session,” said ACU chairman Matt Schlapp, adding that Abbott was “totally welcome…. One of the reasons we’re coming to Texas, quite frankly, is because the leadership in Texas got the economy open early. And we think they should be rewarded.”
Abbott spokeswoman Renae Eze said the governor “is focused on working with the Legislature to ensure a successful special session.”
CPAC is produced by the American Conservative Union. The big annual conference started in 1974 with a keynote from Ronald Reagan, and ever since has been a near-mandatory stop for Republican White House aspirants.
As many as 10,000 activists have converged each year on a massive Gaylord resort near the nation’s capital in National Harbor, Md. But Maryland’s pandemic restrictions precluded such a gathering this year, so the ACU moved it to Orlando in late February.
Trump headlined that event, too, and it went so well, Schlapp said, the ACU decided to do it again just four months later.
“We said, you know what, Texas is the other big mega red state,” said Schlapp, who grew up in Houston. “Florida and Texas have really become the base of the Republican Party and the conservative movement.”
Orlando drew about 4,000 people and Dallas is expected to be about the same size.
With Trump casting such a long shadow over the 2024 field, the only potential contender on the agenda this weekend is South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who was also on stage in Orlando.
Schlapp said the Dallas event was planned on fairly short notice and many party leaders already had vacation plans. But he also feigned offense on behalf of senators and congressmen who will show up.
“A lot of these speakers look in the mirror and see a future president,” he said, though he added that he views the odds of Trump running again for president as better than 50-50, so “it is somewhat awkward for those candidates who are considering running in 2024. What do they do when Donald Trump is at an event and they don’t want to be seen as somehow, being a contrarian to that. So I do think they’re probably each thinking about how they approach Donald Trump and plan a run for president. It’s a legitimate question.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, a reliable presence at CPAC since 2011, when he was running his first Senate campaign, will be noticeably absent. He did speak in Orlando, snubbing Biden as the president made a storm damage tour of his own hometown, Houston. Cruz cited a family commitment for skipping CPAC Dallas; earlier this week he posted a vacation photo from Northern California, and he’s been spotted at a resort near Lake Tahoe.
Shortly after the February 2020 CPAC, Cruz learned he’d shaken hands with someone who’d fallen ill with COVID-19 and he entered a two-week quarantine.
And that wasn’t the only unusual development.
Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen showed up dressed as a Klansman. Footage of him dressed as Trump and heckling Vice President Mike Pence, before security escorted him out of the hall, made it into his Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.
Borat isn’t expected in Dallas – though he wasn’t expected in Washington, either.
At least a few fringe rightwing figures do plan to show up, though, notably Austin-based conspiracy theorist and InfoWars impresario Alex Jones and Nick Fuentes, a neo-Nazi who was ejected from CPAC Orlando.
Fuentes tweeted that he plans to try to get into the Dallas event on Saturday. CPAC attendees must register and wear a credential with their photo. Organizers won’t let him buy a ticket and will be on the lookout.
White nationalist Richard Spencer, a Dallas native and graduate of St. Mark’s School, was ejected from CPAC 2017.
“There’s always party crashers,” Schlapp said. “It’s impossible to police all those things…. But we’ve drawn the line. We’ve kicked out people who can fairly be described as white supremacists. Nobody who claims those views can also claim to play a role in the conservative movement.”
There will be plenty of more mundane political drama, too.
West, a one-term Florida congressman, resigned as state GOP chairman after only a year to challenge Abbott. He’ll appear Sunday morning with Rep. Louie Gohmert of Tyler, who has echoed Trump’s unfounded claims the election was stolen.
Huffines, a two-term state senator, is running against Abbott with a Trumpian slogan “Texas First,” positioning himself as “an actual Republican” and declaring that “Texans deserve real leaders who deliver real results, rather than sorry excuses and lies. We will finish the wall, secure our elections, and eliminate property taxes.”
CPAC attendees will also get a chance to take the measure of Paxton, the embattled attorney general – and one of his rivals, former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman. She’s on a panel Friday afternoon.
Guzman opened her campaign two weeks ago vowing to return “honor and integrity” to the office.
Last fall, several top Paxton aides resigned or were fired after accusing Paxton of abusing his office to help a campaign donor – allegations that are now the subject of an FBI investigation. Four filed a whistleblower lawsuit accusing him of retaliation.
But nationally, Paxton earned affection from Trump supporters last fall by asking the U.S. Supreme Court to nullify 10.4 million votes in four states that picked Biden. That would have overturned Trump’s defeat. The high court rejected the effort out of hand.
“We’re big fans of Attorney General Paxton. We think he’s done a stellar job. We have no reservations about him speaking on the stage,” Schlapp said. “What we see today is a lot of politicized prosecution.”
Another Paxton challenger is not on the schedule: land commissioner George P. Bush – the only prominent member of the dynasty to publicly support Trump, who had humiliated his dad with the nickname “low energy Jeb” in the 2016 primaries.
“George P. would have been welcome to speak,” Schlapp said. “We might have preferences in these races, but the audience has the right to hear from the candidates.”