The Conservative Political Action Conference is many things to many people. The annual gathering, which convened last week at the luxe Gaylord Convention Center outside D.C., is really about five different events rolled into one: a policy conference for wonks and the wonk-curious, a mixer for right-wing media types to hobnob and appear on each other’s shows, a networking space for Young Republicans to focus-test their handshakes, a Lollapalooza-for-boomers destination where faithful Fox watchers can see their TV favorites live, and a bankable moneymaker for its parent organization, the American Conservative Union.
On Friday, the conference’s marquee speaker was Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who spoke one day after Vice President Pence and one day before President Trump. When Pompeo headed onto the main stage shortly after noon Friday, he was greeted by an appreciative crowd warmed up by the likes of Donald Trump Jr., his girlfriend and Fox alum Kimberly Guilfoyle, and “Blexit” activist Candace Owens.
“I am thrilled to be here at the largest conservative gathering in the country,” Pompeo beamed, “except every Trump rally.”
Pompeo’s joke gets at a real concern for CPAC these days. The conference has long been a place where the sometimes stodgy conservative movement can get its blood pumping a bit—an annual opportunity for activists to get whipped up anew about comprehensive immigration reform or Grover Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge. Along the way, it’s helped to turn the ACU into an engine of conservative fundraising.