Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump
The Trump diehards and the Never Trump conservatives are mapping out radically different directions for their party. Alex Brandon/AP

The Battle for the Soul of the GOP, One Dreary D.C. Conference Hall at a Time

A shattered conservative movement met at CPAC and Principles First, with no sign of reconciliation anytime soon.

After Donald Trump easily beat Nikki Haley once again, this time on her home turf of South Carolina on Saturday, he declared he had “never seen the Republican Party so unified as it is right now.”

But in dueling conferences this weekend on opposite sides of the Potomac, it was clear that the Republican Party may never really be unified again. There were the Trump diehards gathered at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, to celebrate their candidate, and there were the Never Trump conservatives in downtown D.C. at the Principles First conference, holding, in effect, a begrudging rally for President Joe Biden.

There was none of the talk from last year, before the primaries began, of the two sides finding a way, a candidate, to bring the party together again. Trump is so far hitting between 50 and 60% in the primaries — enough to comfortably win the nomination but a warning sign that while his consistent base will show up, he may struggle to bring in literally anyone else.

At CPAC, where conservatives used to come together, veteran regulars told NOTUS attendance at the conference was much lower than usual, though there was no official tally. Forgotten were the days of different candidates coming to share ideas and win over attendees. This year, it was just a Trump rally.

“If you are so closely aligned to Donald Trump, then it is not welcoming to other people who aren’t, you know, who are in the movement but aren’t Donald Trump supporters, or who aren’t as fervent supporters,” said an aide for a former American Conservative Union board of directors member who has attended CPAC regularly.

And that was fine with the one attendee who was the main attraction. “We’ve been coming here a long time and it’s gotten bigger and better and more beautiful,” Trump told the crowd. He touted that people were fighting to come into the main ballroom where he was giving his speech — although halfway through it, NOTUS did not see any people waiting outside of the room.

Principles First organizers, on the other hand, were shouting their attendance numbers from the rooftops. Around 700 people were ticketed for the weekend, according to organizer figures. That was far more people than have ever attended the event in its four-year history, they said. Seven hundred attendees, it’s worth noting, is way less than CPAC’s total, diminished as it was.

“I don’t know how many people registered but all I know is we had 1,500 people do the straw poll, so that shows a lot of enthusiasm there,” said Jim McLaughlin, an ACU directors member and CPAC straw pollster.

In the years when Fox News carried McLaughlin’s announcement of the straw poll live on air (the network had no large presence this time), those straw poll voting numbers were much different — 2,659 people voted in 2016. This year’s poll wasn’t even for who attendees thought would make the best Republican presidential nominee — it was for who they thought would make the best VP for Trump (Vivek Ramaswamy and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem tied).

The CPAC exhibit hall, too, once a main attraction, was not much of a draw.

“I would say, the number of exhibitors, just anecdotally, was half this year what it was last year,” the aide to the former ACU board member said.

The aide also pointed to the legal woes of embattled ACU chair Matt Schlapp, who was sued for sexual assault and battery in 2023, a charge he has denied. There have been numerous resignations from the ACU board of directors following the accusation. Even the presence of large conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation, once a main sponsor, was severely diminished.

Across the river at Principles First, people who once might have been mingling at CPAC were posing for pictures with the effigies of purged members of the old Republican Party, and being aghast at the movement that purged them.

“The people at that other conference would tell you that’s illegal, to vote by mail,” said Deborah St-Onge, right after her husband, Charles, took her picture between cardboard stand-up photos of former Reps. Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney set up for this purpose in the hallway outside the event’s main ballroom. “But I feel entitled, as long as I’m —”

“Every American citizen, wherever you live in the world, if you pay taxes in the U.S., you vote in the U.S.,” interrupted Charles. “And so I vote in the U.S.”

The pair spend much of their time now in Quebec, where Charles works as a Lutheran minister. But they pay taxes in America and they vote in Ohio. For most of their lives, they’ve been proud Republicans, and prouder conservatives. Now they’re both registered Democrats. This was a journey familiar to many at Principles First.

“Anne’s neighbor — what did Marianne call me?” Deborah asked Charles. “Oh, ‘When did you turn into a flaming liberal?’ … And I’m like ‘Ok, my views on abortion haven’t changed, I support conservative values, I’m still a practicing Christian. How did I become a flaming liberal? Because I don’t support Trump.’ You know, everything else about my core has not changed. And yet I’m having labels attached to me.”

For Charles it happened in 2016. It took Deborah longer, until the Ohio Senate race in 2022, where she couldn’t bring herself to support now-Sen. J.D. Vance. She said she switched parties to send the GOP a message.

“I went to CPAC when I was in college. It was always a good place to go and kind of have debates about what it meant to be a conservative,” said Heath Mayo, a successful lawyer who founded Principles First after a Twitter spat with CPAC leaders over the direction of their conference in 2019. Mayo says he became the guy to counterprogram CPAC for conservatives basically because he was the first to move on the idea. Principles First was just putting into practice what many of the Republicans mortified by Trump were thinking: “We need to create a space because there isn’t one,” he said.

Of course, the plan was for that space to be used by what was then known as the Republican establishment to figure out how to drive the MAGA folks out. That hasn’t happened. It was hard to find praise for many elected Republicans from the people onstage, besides Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who is hated by MAGA and was on the conference list of speakers.

Sens. Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham and Rep. Elise Stefanik, establishment darlings turned Trump boosters, “know better,” said a panel consisting of former Trump White House staffers who quit and now warn their former boss is a threat to democracy. House Speaker Mike Johnson was openly mocked as a Trump sycophant and a lightweight by multiple speakers to the crowd’s delight each time.

These were not people who imagined going back to National Harbor anytime soon.

“CPAC, they’d really have to change their leadership for it to change directions to such a degree that it would save itself,” Mayo said. “Because, I mean, it is crazy over there.”

It was, at least, a radically different world. At a CPAC vendor booth Saturday, Larry Oberheu hawked Fresh Mouth, a toothpaste with silver in it — but absolutely, positively no fluoride.

“You know, silver killed COVID,” he said.

(The Food and Drug Administration has warned that silver is not safe or effective for treating any disease or condition.)

On the CPAC main stage, Trump focused on Biden, symbolically bringing a truncated GOP primary season he dominated to a close. Haley was fighting for every vote in South Carolina, but Trump wasn’t there and didn’t mention her (he headed to South Carolina for his victory party after finishing his 90-minute CPAC speech, for which he was an hour late).

“Joe, actually, I don’t think he knows what the hell is going on, to be honest with you,” Trump said, focusing heavily on the just about four years separating the likely nominees’ ages. “He’s the most incompetent person. Can you imagine this man who can’t walk off the stage, he can’t find the stairs, ‘Where are they? Where are they?’ he asks.”

The speech drew peals of laughter and applause from the crowd at CPAC.

One of the first big applause breaks at Principles First came during a live taping of a podcast Saturday morning for The Bulwark, one of the new pillars of anti-Trump conservative media.

“As long as there’s no third party, as long as there’s a head-to-head competition and it becomes a head-to-head competition with Trump, I do think Joe Biden will win,” said Sarah Longwell, one of the megastars of Trump-rejecting conservatism.

It wasn’t wild, crazy applause. None of the attendees leapt to their feet. But the claps were widespread and sustained from people in the crowd who desperately want Biden to win reelection, but just as desperately don’t want to want that.

Mayo spoke of a future that might include a third party for people like him, or a candidate running and winning as an independent. He also has a lot of ideas for Democrats to make changes and lock up Principles First types forever. But he knows this is not his year. The 2024 Principles First conference was a place for people still conservative enough to fly to Washington for a conservative conference to admit that they will probably have to vote for Biden in the fall.

Mayo will be voting that way, and he said he expects around half of the people attending Principles First will too.

Evan McMorris-Santoro and Oriana González are reporters at NOTUS.