Who is Matt Schlapp, the CPAC juggernaut at the center of a sexual harassment suit?
In the vast constellation of conservative figures, there are few who have exhibited both the gravity and luminosity of Matt Schlapp, chair of the powerful American Conservative Union, and longtime powerhouse within a particular right-wing gestalt. With his Fox News appearances and the Conservative Political Action Conference, Schlapp has spent years cultivating a reputation as a savvy political operative and kingmaker within the GOP, first in the trenches as a congressional staffer, on through his time as a White House official, and finally as leader of one of the most influential conservative groups in the United States today.
When he was accused of sexual assault in early January, the allegations he'd groped a male staffer for then-candidate Herschel Walker's Georgia Senate campaign prompted an immediate denial from Schlapp's attorney, along with a threat of "legal options" against the unnamed accuser. Shortly thereafter, Schlapp's accuser filed a lawsuit in the Virginia Circuit Court of Alexandria, requesting nearly $10 million in damages for "a sexual battery committed" as well as for the "subsequent dishonest efforts by Mr. Schlapp, his wife, defendant Mercedes V. Schlapp, and others associated and acting in concert with them, to discredit" him once the allegations had been made public.
So who is Matt Schlapp, and how does this latest episode fit into his long career of conservative activism?
How long has he been involved in Republican politics?
As you'd probably expect from someone in the uppermost echelons of conservatism, Matt Schlapp has been at this for a long time. Before entering the world of professional politics, Schlapp founded a conservative student magazine as an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame, then earned a Master's in Public Administration at Wichita State University. He began his political career in earnest in 1994, working his way up the congressional staffer ranks for Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) for five years before joining the George W. Bush 2000 election team as one of the campaign's regional political directors. It was in this role that Schlapp first rose to national prominence, participating in the now-infamous "Brooks Brothers Riot" of well-dressed GOP operatives who massed at Florida's Miami-Dade polling office to (ultimately successfully) throw the 2000 presidential election to the Republicans.
For his work on the campaign, Schlapp was appointed then-President Bush's White House Political Director, serving for several years before leaving the administration to become the top political lobbyist for Koch Industries. Schlapp eventually left Koch to launch his own political consulting firm, Cove Strategies, with his wife and future Donald Trump communications director, Mercedes Schlapp.
What has he done since becoming head of the ACU?
In 2014, Schlapp's election to replace outgoing American Conservative Union head Al Cardenas was heralded as a step toward a more open, welcoming phase of the right-wing organization — particularly for gay conservatives — saying at the time that "the goal of ACU is not to kick all people out who might come from a different perspective."
"In its name, it's a union, to bring people together in a coalition," he continued. "That's the goal. When it comes to CPAC, the welcome mat is out, recognizing the fact that not everyone agrees. At the same time, we want to be true to our principles." Nevertheless, during his tenure as ACU chair, Schlapp has hosted a number of notoriously anti-LGBTQ figures at his annual CPAC gathering, including authoritarian Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, and Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson.
Under Schlapp's watch, CPAC has transitioned into what many critics — including past and current board members — allege is a decidedly Trump-oriented "pay-to-play" operation for modern, MAGA-tinged conservatism. As one former CPAC official told The Guardian, "Matt changed the board so it's more business people and fundraisers who can help Matt. It's changed from a conservative conference to a Trump conference." Said another current board member: "The board has become more and more ceremonial. We don't even vote to authorize international CPAC events. Because there are so many potential pitfalls to foreign engagement, including accepting foreign funds, these should be board-level decisions."
Nevertheless, Schlapp's position at the head of ACU remains solid enough that even following the allegations of his sexual assault, Republican lawmakers have maintained a sense of relative (albeit not absolute) comfort associating with CPAC.
What happens now?
Through his attorney, Schlapp has forcefully rejected the allegations of assault from the Walker staffer, writing on Twitter that "the Schlapp family is suffering unbearable pain and stress due to the false allegation from an anonymous individual." The statement also confirmed that Schlapp is exploring "counter-lawsuit options" against his accuser, although to date no such suits have been filed.
Meanwhile, CPAC's 2023 conference runs from March 1 to March 4, with scheduled speakers including Steve Bannon, who is appealing his contempt of Congress guilty verdict, as well as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and former President Donald Trump.
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