DENVER | Five years ago, John Andrews was casting about for a signature event to put the newly founded Centennial Institute on the map, when he realized that there is probably no place politicos would rather visit in the summer than Colorado.
The humidity is low, the bugs are scarce and it’s a swing state. Mr. Andrews and former Sen. Bill Armstrong, the president of Colorado Christian University, envisioned a Western version of the Conservative Political Action Conference, with a few tweaks.
“Bill Armstrong and I said to each other, ‘We could do something like that,’ except that it would be different in three ways,” said Mr. Andrews, director of the conservative Centennial Institute think tank. “It would be in the summer, not the winter; it would be in the Rockies, not on the Potomac, and it would have that broader recognition that important as politics and elections are, most important of all is the understanding of the American idea in the hearts and minds of our people.”
Never mind that Mr. Andrews, a former Colorado Senate president, was 66, an age at which most people are putting on the brakes. In 2010, the Centennial Institute launched the first Western Conservative Summit, a gathering of conservative politicos and intellectuals. Its theme: “Right turn, right now.”
Mr. Andrews hoped to draw about 300 attendees to a hotel in suburban Douglas County. Instead, 600 people signed up, forcing him to move the event to downtown Denver.
Five years later, Mr. Andrews expects as many as 3,000 attendees when the three-day Western Conservative Summit convenes Friday. This year’s theme: “America at Its Best.”
Once again, the summit has outgrown its venue. The Denver Hyatt Regency’s 2,000-seat ballroom isn’t big enough to hold everyone for the biggest draws, so several events will be held across the street at the Colorado Convention Center’s Bellco Theatre.
That includes Friday’s opening night with Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Washington Times columnist Ben S. Carson. The program also includes a plethora of other prominent Republicans: former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, former Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, and former Rep. Allen West of Florida.
Tea Party Patriots founder Jenny Beth Martin will be there, but Mr. Andrews said the summit is aimed at all conservatives, whatever their stripe. One summit workshop, “Fight on the Right,” tackles the tension among tea partyers, the Republican establishment, libertarians and social conservatives.
“That’s healthy. You’re not going to have a governing coalition unless you have some disagreement and some constructive tension,” said Mr. Andrews, “but there is a danger that a circular firing squad will deprive the right of opportunities in Colorado and nationally this year.”
Keeping the conference young is a priority for Mr. Andrews, who is 70 but as spry as a shortstop. He invites students from Colorado Christian University to introduce the speakers, and 120 people ages 16 to 20 will be attending this year as part of the just-launched Young Conservatives Leadership Conference.
“Maybe I’m a youthful, energetic 70,” Mr. Andrews said with a grin, “but the fact remains that my generation came of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and it’s time for us to hand the torch to Americans who will make or break America in the 21st century.”
Although Barack Obama owned the youth vote in 2008 and 2012, Mr. Andrews said, it’s the conservative message that is suited to the under-30 crowd.
“I think personal choice and personal responsibility and self-reliance and taking hold of your own future to meet your own aspirations, which is a conservative and not a progressive or a liberal approach, has all kinds of possibilities with this next generation,” he said. “We just have to do a better job of getting the message across.”
A highlight of the weekend is the presidential straw poll, which the summit began in its second year. Last year, Mr. Cruz won the poll, and he may be tough to beat this year, given that he’s a featured speaker.
The Western Conservative Summit is ascending at a time when conservative-themed conferences are all the rage. In addition to CPAC, there’s the RedState Gathering, the Faith and Freedom Coalition Road to Majority conference, RightOnline, the Values Voter Summit, BlogCon and the Conservative Leadership Conference, among others.
The phenomenon has become so unmistakable that The Atlantic ran a June 2012 article, “Why Are There So Many Conservative Conferences?”
Mr. Andrews has a simple explanation: “There’s just no substitute for being together.”
“The energy that fills the room when a lot of people have come together for a common purpose to hear a powerful message, and the networking that goes on, the friendships, the contacts that get forged,” he said. “The realization that, ‘Hey, what I’m doing and what you’re doing, if we combine them, we get synergy, we get one and one to add up to three. That’s why coming together in person and doing it over a three-day span, not just doing it on one particular evening, there’s some power in that.”
In the summit’s first year, drawing top Republicans to Denver was tricky. Most of the speakers were local, but now, “We’ve begun to get prominent national speakers who seek us out and say, ‘Can I address your delegates?’” Mr. Andrews said.
“Year by year, the reputation is growing,” he said. “We feel flattered when people say, ‘This is the CPAC of the West. This is the CPAC of the summertime.’ I don’t think we’re there yet, but I think it’s something to aspire to.”