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At CPAC, election deniers thrive and the Trump train chugs ahead

People attending the Conservative Political Action Conference posed in T-shirts spelling out the name of the former president.Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press

OXON HILL, Md. — Jack Hachmeister surveyed all the “Make America Great Again” and “Trump won” hats on sale at the Conservative Political Action Conference and did something unusual: He bought two celebrating Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

“In Florida, the support we see for him is crazy,” said Hachmeister, a 20-year-old University of South Florida student, as he paid $40 to Ronald Solomon, owner of The MAGA Mall booth.

But Hachmeister was an outlier in this crowd, according to Solomon, who said he sells 15 Trump hats for every DeSantis hat. And if Solomon’s own Trump cap wasn’t enough of a reminder to Hachmeister of who really reigns supreme here, his refrain was.


“Have a MAGA day, son!” Solomon said.

The conference, best known as CPAC, is unfolding on the banks of the Potomac River at a delicate moment for Republican politics. Presidential candidates not named Donald Trump are kicking the tires on nascent campaigns of their own, while well-heeled donors and party leaders openly muse about leaving their standard bearer behind after he lost the White House and dragged the party down in the midterms.

Even the conference itself is in turmoil after its chairman, Matt Schlapp, was accused of sexual misconduct by a fellow Republican — a charge he denies — and some sponsors, including Fox’s streaming service, aren’t here this year. Once a must-stop for Republicans of all stripes due to its popularity among activists and donors alike, the convention has shrunk to a smaller crowd of true believers.

For this weekend, the Gaylord Convention Center is the House that Trump Built, with the former president scheduled to speak Saturday evening. His dug-in supporters reminded would-be challengers of the depth of their allegiance, while election deniers and MAGA stars basked in the glow of the base’s devotion. No one seemed to care that party leaders House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell did not bother to show up. In fact, some preferred they stay away.


“Party leaders — they’re all babies,” said Suzanne Webb, a Trump devotee who went to Mar-a-Lago in December and recently became a Republican precinct president in her hometown of Glendale, Ariz. “They’re trying to get us to say that we’re not going to be for Trump. At this point, it would be very hard” for any such effort to succeed.

Fans posed for photos in a fake Oval Office staged as if Trump were still president, complete with photographs of him with his wife, Lady Melania Trump, and a name plate reading “Trump was right.” His allies were treated like royalty. Steve Bannon, the far-right podcaster, often brought foot traffic in the hallway to a halt as attendees craned to watch him interview right-wing personalities such as former Trump aide Ric Grenell. Admirers flocked to recently failed candidates such as Kari Lake of Arizona and Sarah Palin. Others squeezed into selfies with Kimberly Guilfoyle, the fiancee of Donald Trump Jr., and posed children for photos with Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida.

“Anybody who tells you that President Trump isn’t still the head of the conservative and Republican Party isn’t paying attention to the evidence in from of them,” said Guilfoyle.

It’s not clear if the convention is just a Mar-a-Lago on the Potomac or an indication of Trump’s broader hold on the party. Several recent polls show him leading DeSantis, currently viewed as his strongest potential rival.


Regardless, any Trump competitor will have to appease this crowd, which has already shaped the party’s rhetoric and priorities far outside this convention center and is unwilling to go down without a fight.

“The 45th president has a major influence on our party, a major leader in our party. Every polling number I’ve seen suggests that 35 percent of our party votes for him in a heartbeat, and doesn’t even flinch,” said Representative Byron Donalds of Florida, a featured speaker here. “Anybody else that’s running — you better figure out a way to contend with that.”

Some candidates made a go of it. Nikki Haley, the former UN ambassador under Trump, addressed a half-full ballroom that golf-clapped politely at lines that only a few weeks ago had drawn huge roars when she launched her own presidential campaign in Charleston, S.C.

“Take it from me, the first minority female governor in history, America is not a racist country,” Haley declared from the podium. After she posed for selfies with attendees in the hallway following her speech, a woman in an American-flag patterned headband started a chat of, “Trump! Trump! Trump!”

One person, seeing the commotion, excitedly asked a friend if the crowd response was for Representative Anna Paulina Luna, a Trump-endorsed Republican from Florida, then turned away in disappointment when he realized it was Haley.

A little while later on stage came former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, another former Trump Cabinet member who appears to be positioning to run for president.


“We can’t become the left, following celebrity leaders with their own brand of identity politics, those with fragile egos who refuse to acknowledge reality,” Pompeo said, but his thinly veiled shot at Trump drew little reaction from the crowd.

Indeed, the refusal to acknowledge reality — that Trump lost the 2020 election — thrives here. Mike Lindell, the MyPillow founder who has become one of the country’s most prominent election deniers, handed out fliers for his latest project, an entity called the “Election Crime Bureau.”

“I’m here at CPAC for one reason and one reason only, and that is to educate people,” Lindell said, calling for the end of vote tabulation machines and early voting, and lambasting DeSantis as a “Trojan horse.”

“This is almost like grassroots, a new party forming … call it the party of common sense,” Lindell added. “That’s the Donald Trump party, too, by the way.”

Nearby, Sherronna Bishop, a former campaign manager for Representative Lauren Boebert who is closely aligned with the election-denying Colorado election official Tina Peters, was wearing an “Election Crime Bureau” hat. She said Lindell, Trump, and Lake, who has challenged her loss in court, represent the future of the country.

“Kari Lake symbolizes, ‘I’m not quitting,’” Bishop said, then complained about Republican Pennsylvania Senate candidate Mehmet Oz conceding his midterm race last fall. “Dr. Oz didn’t lose. Instead of holding the line, these politicians keep caving.”


Some longtime attendees of the conference were disappointed by its Trump tunnel vision, and cautioned that Trump’s strong showing here said little about his power over the rest of the party.

“It’s become the Donald Trump political action conference,” said Michael Biundo, a New Hampshire-based Republican strategist who left Washington early to get ahead of a winter storm aimed at his home state. “I don’t think an event like this has any correlation to the broader electorate or the party in general.”

And there were some signs of the GOP’s overall reticence to embrace Trump. Many of the lawmakers present declined to endorse him on the spot, including Donalds and even hard-core Trump ally Scott Perry of Pennsylvania.

“I’m focused on saving the Republic right now,” Perry said in response to whether he planned to support Trump in 2024. “I’m focused on saving the Republic from the left.”

Back in the exhibition hall, where Beth Veneto of Quincy, Mass., was selling gingerbread cookies depicting Trump, intricately decorated with yellow frosting hair and glittery stars.

“I’m glad the other people are jumping into the race, but ginger Donald all the way,” Veneto said. “We’re going to make sure our cookie country doesn’t crumble.”

Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.