Matt Schlapp may be the consummate Beltway insider, but he believes the nation’s conservative power center is moving away from Washington — so CPAC is shifting with it.
Not only did the American Conservative Union host its annual February conference in Orlando, the first time the 47-year-old confab had been held outside the Beltway, but then Mr. Schlapp decided to throw another major gathering four months later with CPAC Texas, which begins Friday in Dallas.
The proximate cause of the reshuffling was the pandemic-spurred shutdown of the Conservative Political Action Conference’s usual haunt, the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland. But Mr. Schlapp said that the shakeup also forced him to consider that “maybe we need a new model.”
Mr. Schlapp, the ACU chairman since 2014, told The Washington Times that, “the center of gravity in this country is changing.”
He pointed to the exodus from blue-state metropolitan areas such as New York City and San Francisco to pro-business destinations like Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas, creating the conditions for red “mega states” that act as a counterweight to the increasingly progressive stronghold of Washington and the region surrounding the nation’s capital.
“I think CPAC’s story this year is much like America’s story,” said Mr. Schlapp. “This terrible year-and-a-half we’ve all been through has us all rethinking a lot of things about our life, and what I’ve come to realize is it’s not red states versus blue states, it’s failed blue states that people are fleeing, and mega-red states that people are flocking to.”
He said he sees the same phenomenon in the District, where conservatives who work in and around the federal government are becoming long-distance commuters, putting in a four-day week and then flying home to more politically friendly states like North Carolina.
“D.C. was always Democratic town, but it was always a safe place for everybody. You had Democratic friends if you were a Republican, you had parties where you got to know people. That started to break down at the congressional level 10 years or so ago,” Mr. Schlapp said. “Now it’s a hostile place to be if you have my views, my wife’s views.”
Mr. Schlapp should know. He and his wife, Mercedes Schlapp, have long been one of the District’s most notable power couples on the right, but their profiles soared when Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016.
Their close association with Mr. Trump — Mrs. Schlapp was his White House director of strategic communications from 2017-19 — prompted The New York Times to dub them “Washington’s Trump-era ‘It Couple,’” while The Washington Post called them “the cool kids of Trumpism.”
That sort of entree typically comes with myriad social and political perks, as the Schlapps knew, having worked for former President George W. Bush. Not so under President Trump.
“If you’re close to a president and you’re close to power and you know how the system works, as my wife and I do, usually you get a great and really enjoyable run,” said Mr. Schlapp. “And I have to say that being close to Trump always had its thorns. People were so nasty. It was rough and tumble every moment of that, so I don’t really think we got much of the good out of it in terms of having a lot of fun.”
Unlike former Bush, Clinton and Obama officials, many Trump administration figures received the cold shoulder from corporate America and the think tanks and Washington organizations that usually welcome White House veterans.
“There is no soft landing for a Trump supporter. It’s just the hard reality,” said Mr. Schlapp. “I’m not complaining. I’m really proud of what my wife did in working for President Trump, I’m really proud of what I did in terms of helping him get elected. I think it helped wake up a lot of Americans to how serious this rise of socialism is in the country.”
That experience, however, could make it difficult for the next Republican president to attract top talent.
“I think the next Republican president is going to have a heck of a hard time filling the administration,” said Mr. Schlapp. “Donald Trump had a hard time doing that, and I think it’s getting harder.”
The Schlapps live in Alexandria with their five daughters, but he understands that for many conservatives, uprooting their lives to dwell inside the Beltway would be a nonstarter.
“I think people don’t want to move here,” Mr. Schlapp said. “It’s not a good place to raise your kids if you care about our values and our politics. Why would you move from Texas and come to D.C. to get spit on at dinner, to have your kids indoctrinated with a bunch of crap? I think it’s going to become a big issue.”
The Schlapps have never been physically attacked, but “we’ve had some very nasty moments,” he said.
“You never know when you’re eating at a restaurant if somebody’s going to come up and say something nasty. That’s fine if I’m by myself, but when I’m with my kids, that’s no good,” he said. “The same thing walking through Reagan Airport — a month or so ago, someone all the way down the terminal started having a tirade against me. It’s embarrassing. You’ve got a couple hundred people looking at you. That’s all like a new thing.”
Mr. Trump, a CPAC regular, will headline this weekend’s Texas conference, which is expected to draw about 4,000 attendees. Also speaking are a host of former administration figures, including David Bernhardt, Ben Carson, Richard Grenell, Stephen Miller, Robert C. O’Brien, Rick Perry, Matthew Whitaker and Chad Wolf.
Conspicuously absent will be former Vice President Mike Pence, who has not appeared with Mr. Trump since their rift over the Jan. 6 Electoral College certification.
Mr. Schlapp said he urged Mr. Pence to speak at CPAC in Orlando, but he declined. The former vice president did speak last month at the Faith & Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority conference in Kissimmee, Florida, where he was met with some boos.
“I really encouraged him to go to Orlando. Mercy and I, we have a great fondness for the vice president, great respect. I really was hoping he would come,” Mr. Schlapp said. “I think he felt it just wasn’t the right timing. So we’d love to hear back from him and his crew if he wants to kind of reengage with CPAC, but we’ve really not heard from him.”
He said he was optimistic that Mr. Trump and Mr. Pence would eventually put their differences behind them.
“It’s such a tough relationship to manage for both people, and by the end maybe they’re just tired,” Mr. Schlapp said. “But I think over the long run, they’ll work very closely together. We’d love to play a role at CPAC. It’s a really good idea to try to bring all conservatives together. We don’t have so many that we can afford to leave people out of the coalition.”
While the one-two punch of Florida and Texas is new to CPAC, the event under Mr. Schlapp has sought to expand its reach beyond the Beltway.
In the last few years, CPAC has launched annual conferences in Japan, Brazil, Australia and South Korea. Next on the agenda is Israel.
“We’ve had requests to come do a CPAC in Hungary. We’re planning on being in Israel, and we’ve been in almost every battleground state in the country,” Mr. Schlapp said. “The battlegrounds don’t command as much attention. So we’ve had this model of not just having one CPAC a year for quite a long time.”
The ACU decided to hold a second CPAC 2021 after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced that he was lifting pandemic restrictions during the Orlando event. The theme in Texas is “America UnCanceled,” the same as in Orlando.
At its February 2020 conference at the Gaylord National, CPAC had a COVID-19 outbreak that reportedly began with a doctor who attended the event, prompting Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, and Rep. Paul Gosar, Arizona Republican, to announce that they would self-quarantine.
The resort shut down in March and did not reopen until July 1, 16 months later.
Does CPAC plan to return to National Harbor?
“I think we would seriously consider not having it there anymore,” Mr. Schlapp said.
“They certainly didn’t let us have it. We had a rough patch there with corona,” he said. “Let’s just say we’re reevaluating everything.”