Heath Mayo had had enough of CPAC, and now his idea of getting a few friends together to talk conservative issues as an alternative to the star-studded, high-priced event has mushroomed into a national movement to skip the Conservative Political Action Conference altogether.
CPAC, the year’s biggest gathering of conservatives, began Wednesday and runs through Saturday. It features speeches from President Donald Trump, most of his cabinet and leading GOP members of Congress, as well as seminars on how to frame issues and run for office.
But to Mayo, a Boston-based management consultant, CPAC has devolved and is now devoid of the passionate discussion of conservative principles he still relishes.So starting Thursday, 12 meet-ups are planned as alternatives. From Thursday to Sunday, conservatives will convene at restaurants and bars in Miami, Greensboro, N.C., Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Austin, Dallas, Houston and Washington.
“This will not be a full-blown conference like CPAC in a fancy ballroom,” says a memo from Mayo to those interested. “There will be no orchestrated cattle calls with big personalities or speakers.”
Instead, he plans “a chance for principled conservatives like you to come together over drinks in your community and make sense of what’s happened both to CPAC and the conservative movement.”
Mayo, a first-time organizer of the Skip CPAC events, began his effort with a tweet. He planned to be in Washington this week to visit his girlfriend and wanted to see if his friends wanted to get together and talk politics. People saw the tweets, and one questioning CPAC’s value went viral.
Others from around the country said via social media or by talking to friends that they’d like to participate in similar meetings.
There’s no charge to participate. “Everyone will have to buy their own beer,” Mayo said.
The Mayo groups want deeper discussions about conservatism’s present and future. And at a lower price — a CPAC pass to all general admission events is $330, with discounts for seniors, veterans, first responders and students. A one-day ticket is $165. Friday’s Ronald Reagan dinner, featuring “VIP speakers and attendees, dinner and a post-dinner reception with dancing,” is $250.
Many conservatives are intellectual disciples of those who spawned the modern conservative movement, such as author and editor William F. Buckley, credited with leading the drive to build and promote the philosophical foundation, and President Reagan, who showed how such views could be translated into political action.
And while Mayo told McClatchy his effort has nothing to do with how conservatives view Trump -- “We’ll have Trump supporters,” he said, adding, “this is about the direction of CPAC.” -- some who attend the alternative meet-ups think the current president and his supporters do not ascribe enough to traditional conservative values.
“Most of the invited speakers at CPAC do not represent conservatism, but instead represent Trump. Conservatives believe in limited government, constitutional norms, fiscal responsibility and a strong national defense. Today’s CPAC rejects these ideas,” said Matthew Sarelson, a politically active Republican attorney and organizer of the Miami event.
One of the bigger concerns of many conservatives — including Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which hosts CPAC — is that Republicans are paying too little attention to reducing the national debt.
It’s a theme Schlapp wants to pursue this week at CPAC. “We’ll be spending a lot of time talking about that,” he said.
CPAC has several “breakout sessions” where issues are meant to be discussed at length. A seminar on “Tackling the Debt before It Tackles You’’ will feature Sens. David Perdue, a Georgia Republican, and Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee. Another forum on debt is sponsored by Heritage Action for America, a Washington-based conservative research group.
Mayo and his colleagues, though, worry that serious discussions will be forgotten or buried under the avalanche of book signings, speeches by conservative stars and an eagerness to network and party.
They see an out-of-control federal debt that Republicans are doing little to curb. “Conservatives have largely gone silently into the night on that issue,” Mayo said.
The national debt in mid-February was about $22 trillion, up from $19.9 trillion when Trump took office 25 months ago.
At least, say the skip CPAC organizers, conservatives can strategize in a serious way.
“I have no expectations for turnout,” said Miami’s Sarelson. “I’m just happy to meet up with other concerned conservatives and to start the conversation.”