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Mar 1, 2023, 5:09pm EST
politics

Unsold tickets, fringy sponsors, missing stars: It’s a rough year for CPAC

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The News

The Conservative Political Action Conference returns to the D.C. area today, but some of its biggest sponsors and speakers from past years aren’t coming back.

Donald Trump will be there, but Ron DeSantis won’t be. Trump’s super PAC is a $125,000-level sponsor; Fox Nation, which spent $250,000 on last year’s conference, is skipping this one. Nikki Haley is speaking from the main stage, but Mike Pence won’t be, for the third year running.

The American Conservative Union, which runs CPAC and has expanded to run similar conferences in Japan, Brazil, Hungary, and Mexico, has not shared information about ticket sales or attendance.

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But last week, CPAC offered congressional staffers $50 tickets, a $245 discount from the general admission price. As of Wednesday morning, some of the host hotel’s 2000 rooms were still available to book, and some CPAC attendees had gotten calls about last-minute tickets for the Ronald Reagan Dinner, which will be keynoted by former Arizona gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake.

The tickets are selling for $375 each, and remained available for purchase on the conference’s website at the time of this article’s publication.

“Seventy-two hours out, it is weird to be getting phone bank-style calls begging me to buy an insanely overpriced ticket for a dinner with a speaker that clearly nobody cares to hear speak,” GOP strategist Dennis Lennox, who has attended CPAC yearly since 2007, told Semafor.

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Know More

This is CPAC’s 49th year, and drama about who’s invited, disinvited, and banned is now a standard programming feature.

But this year the situation is hard to disentangle from its issues at the top. In January, American Conservative Union President Matt Schlapp was accused of groping an employee on Herschel Walker’s failed U.S. Senate campaign in Georgia, a charge he denied in court — but one that made some past CPAC attendees more cautious about attending the conference.

Schlapp told Semafor on Monday that he would be available to talk about CPAC on Tuesday. That morning, the Washington Post published a story about the Walker staffer’s allegation as well as other complaints made about Schlapp’s behavior during his career in the conservative movement. Afterward, he did not respond to texts and emails.

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No CPAC speaker pulled out of the conference after the lawsuit against Schlapp, and sponsorship deals were set before the case was filed. Even so, the sponsor list does show a shift in who’s paying for exposure at the four-day conference, with some prominent conservative groups opting out and obscure organizations replacing them.

The Republican National Committee, a $125,000 sponsor of the 2022 conference, is not a sponsor this year. (According to people familiar with the decision, the deadline for sponsorship passed before RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel won re-election, and the party didn’t want to make a commitment until the race was settled.) GETTR, a conservative social network founded by Trump strategist Jason Miller, was a $75,000-level sponsor last year, but is not sponsoring now. Last month, Miller left the company to rejoin Trump.

Some reliable high-level sponsors have bowed out amid their own controversies. Liberty HealthShare, which bought the conference’s top sponsorship package for several years, has come under new scrutiny for failing to pay the bills of people who relied on it for coverage. Project Veritas, a frequent sponsor, is in turmoil over the removal of its founder, James O’Keefe. He’s speaking at the conference, but his old group isn’t a sponsor.

Other backers have emerged to fill the gaps. New Federal State of China, an anti-CCP organization founded by Steve Bannon, is a $75,000 supporter of the conference; Bannon will speak from the main stage. Proverbs Media Group, the publisher of the Christian News Journal and a minor sponsor in the past, is a $125,000-level partner this year. The top stories on the CNJ’s front page this week, all posted in December 2021, include headlines about New Year’s resolutions for 2022 and a family ejected from a New York Applebee’s under a now-defunct vaccine policy.

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David and Shelby's View

CPAC’s morphing list of sponsors and guests — not to mention those empty hotel rooms — are a sign of its somewhat diminished place in the conservative movement. Turning Point USA, another frequent sponsor, has taken over some of its old turf with raucous AmericaFest events. Anti-Trump Republicans, who walked away years ago, now observe CPAC like a gawker looking at a 10-car pile-up.

But CPAC remains a destination for the dominant brand of conservatism inside the GOP, as the speaker and event agenda reflects. GOP members of Congress with roles on investigative committees will appear throughout, from a panel on a leaked FBI memo that labeled some Catholics as potential threats (“No Dominus Vobiscum FBI”) to a talk with Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the chair of the new committee probing the government for ways it’s been “weaponized” against conservatives. Kentucky Rep. James Comer, the chair of the House Oversight committee, will sit for a discussion of “the Biden crime family.”

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Room for Disagreement

CPAC has pushed back on reporting suggesting trouble in paradise. In a statement responding to the Washington Post recent piece, the group argued that the conference has transformed “from a small, annual conference into a respected conservative grassroots and policy powerhouse with expanding international reach.”

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