Continued from page 1

“We were subjected to every epithet and insult — that we were kooks, far out, fringe, on the margin, Reagan was a dunce, freeman, radical — all this was said about Reagan and his supporters,” he said. “In those years, it was identical to what is being said today about the tea party, exactly the same stuff.”

CPAC is one of the milestones of the ACU’s journey, but Mr. Roberts said a highlight for him was the 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Buckley v. Valeo, which allowed independent expenditures in political campaigns.

ACU was the main funder of that challenge,” Mr. Roberts said. “I think the organization was taken seriously before, but not as well known.”

That decision allowed the organization to help Reagan’s struggling presidential campaign and made a major impact in the North Carolina primary in particular.

“It had been written off by that point, but he came back in North Carolina, a very strong rebound, and almost won the nomination,” Mr. Roberts said.

That turnaround left Reagan poised for victory in 1980.

“It was a great time for young conservatives like me to be alive,” Mr. Roberts said. “It was a key period in American political history. We had a conservative intellectual movement that was transitioning to a successful political movement.

“The American Conservative Union is, I think, one of the most consequential organizations in the last 50 years of American political life, without question.”

Although the ACU has had its triumphs, the organization also has encountered hurdles and anticipates more challenges ahead.

“The ACU then and now was an effort to bring together all the different elements of the conservative movements to do things like support candidates, support legislation, to make pronouncements on behalf of conservative points of view,” Mr. Evans said.

The difference, however, is that Reagan was the one leader who could unite conservatives.

“It was simple: Are you for Reagan or not?” he said. “So now we don’t have a Reagan, and that creates a very different dynamic. I’m not sure how it’s going to play out.”

For Carly Fiorina, chairwoman of the American Conservative Union Foundation, the focus is on reminding Americans of the conservative principles, which “actually work to improve the state of people’s lives, grow our economy, make our country a better place in the 21st century.”

Acknowledging that future lawmakers are important to conservatives, Ms. Fiorina said the opportunity now and in the long run is to educate people about the conservative principles and how they can apply to everyday life.

“Yes, we have an election in 2014, an election in 2016, but we have fundamental reforms that are necessary in government,” said Ms. Fiorina, a former business executive and Senate candidate. “It’s a challenge and opportunity to reach out to as many people as possible, because to succeed we have to grow our movement while not sacrificing our core principles. How we walk that line is very important.”

Story Continues →