Since the nonprofit American Conservative Union hosted its first Conservative Political Action Conference in 1973, CPAC has morphed into a massive annual event. Every year, thousands of conservatives from across the country descend upon the capital (actually, a convention center in nearby Maryland) for three days of seminars and panel discussions — led by a range of groups from the Frederick Douglass Republicans to the National Rifle Association — punctuated by main-stage speeches from some of the Republican Party’s biggest names and rising stars.
The annual straw poll is regarded as a barometer for the state of conservatism, especially in years preceding an election, as the poll's winner has occasionally gone on to win the GOP’s presidential nomination. But perhaps more than its political relevance, it’s the event's no-holds-barred, for-us-by-us mentality that has turned the conservative gathering into a media spectacle. CPAC is widely covered, with everyone from bloggers to national networks enticed by the opportunity to observe conservatives in their natural habitat in hopes of witnessing something controversial. And CPAC, for its part, rarely disappoints.
The first gaffe of CPAC 2015 emerged before the conference had even begun. Wednesday morning, Washington Post reporter Ben Terris tweeted a screenshot of Dr. Ben Carson’s bio on the CPAC mobile site, pointing out that the man in the photograph under Carson’s name was not the GOP’s favorite physician but Sen. Tim Scott, a different African American Republican scheduled to speak at the conference. Within a couple of hours, Terris’s tweet had received hundreds of comments and retweets, and sparked a number of blog posts, including this one at Talking Points Memo noting that the error had apparently been fixed.
Actually, CPAC spokesman Ross Hemminger told TPM, the error wasn’t fixed because the error wasn’t real. The screenshot spread round the Web was “a Photoshop,” Hemminger said. Terris insists this isn’t so.
Now that the conference has officially kicked off, it won’t be long before the Carson-Scott gaffe is eclipsed by something else more offensive, salacious or simply outrageous. As the on-scene reporters prepare to pounce on the next potential controversy, let’s review a few of the scandals from CPAC's past.
The slavery defense
Two years ago, GOProud was explicitly, and controversially, not invited to the conference. The gay Republican group’s decision to hold a rogue panel in spite of the snub was slated to be the talk of CPAC 2013. And it was — until an audience member interrupted a breakout session labled “Trump the Race Card” to make the case for segregation and ask whether slavery was really that bad.
“I feel like my demographic are being systematically disenfranchised,” said Scott Terry, a 30-year-old white man from North Carolina who suggested that Republicans might be better off advocating for racial segregation. Presenter K. Carl Smith of the Frederick Douglass Republicans responded to Terry’s question by pointing out that, once freed, Frederick Douglass wrote a letter to his former slave master, forgiving him.
“For what? For feeding him and housing him?” Terry interrupted, sending the rest of the audience into an uproar of equal parts outrage and support. Later, Smith, who is black, released a statement on the discord that took place during his panel and, curiously, expressed more of a problem with a Voice of Russia reporter who he said “rudely interrupted” him than with the man who hijacked his presentation to argue on behalf of slavery and segregation.
Terry, “made some racially insensitive comments,” Smith wrote. “At the conclusion of the breakout session, I further explained to him the Frederick Douglass Republican Message which he embraced, bought a book, and we left as friends.”
The white nationalist connection
Scott Terry’s thoughts on the plight of the disenfranchised white male may have attracted a lot of attention, but CPAC has a long history with white nationalists that, even in the past few years, it hasn’t been able — or willing — to shake.
The CPAC 2012 lineup included a discussion on multiculturalism featuring Peter Brimelow, founder of the white nationalist site VDARE, and Robert Vandervoort, head of the English-only lobbying group ProEnglish. According to the Institute for Research on Education and Human Rights, Vandervoort was also previously an organizer for a prominent Chicago-based white nationalist group.
In 2013 (the year of the aforementioned segregation conversation), CPAC’s organizers actually went out of their way to include more minority speakers and groups so as to highlight the conservative movement’s “diversity.” But while the itinerary for CPAC 2013 included twice as many black and Latino speakers as 2012’s, Mother Jones pointed out that the conference’s organizers still failed to cut their white nationalist ties. The magazine noted that the website of the American Conservative Union, the nonprofit that founded and primarily puts on CPAC, featured an article from the ACU’s newsletter by Robert Weissberg, a professor and prolific author whose contentious resume includes being fired from the National Review for his affiliation with American Renaissance, a known white nationalist group.
CPAC 2015 is hardly free of that white nationalist presence, with ProEnglish back as one of this year’s sponsors. Ahead of the conference, a coalition of civil rights groups sent a letter to Republican presidential candidates to denounce CPAC’s relationship with ProEnglish, highlighting leader Vandervoort’s white nationalist background.
Ann Coulter outdoes herself
Never a huge fan of political correctness, conservative commentator Ann Coulter lived up to her polemicist reputation at CPAC 2007 when she called then-Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards a “faggot.”
“I was going to have a few comments on the other Democratic presidential candidate, John Edwards, but it turns out that you have to go into rehab if you use the word ‘faggot,’ so I’m — so, kind of at an impasse, can’t really talk about Edwards, so I think I’ll just conclude here and take your questions,” Coulter said.
The audience applauded, but outside the conference, Coulter’s comment was quickly catapulting a controversy. The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the Democratic National Committee condemned Coulter’s use of the slur. John Edwards actually tried to fundraise off of it, posting a video of the dig on his campaign website and calling on supporters to “raise $100,000 in ‘Coulter Cash’ this week to keep this campaign charging ahead and fight back against the politics of bigotry.”
It wasn’t only Democrats who disparaged Coulter. A spokesperson for Sen. John McCain, who was also a Republican presidential candidate at the time, called the comment “wildly inappropriate.” Fellow Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s spokesman said Coulter’s words were “offensive.”
The one person who remained completely unfazed by the controversy was Coulter. In an emailed response to the New York Times regarding her comments at CPAC, Coulter wrote:
"C'mon, it was a joke. I would never insult gays by suggesting that they are like John Edwards. That would be mean."
The love-hate relationship with Log Cabin Republicans
CPAC might seem like it has something for every kind of conservative, but the Log Cabin Republicans would disagree. The gay conservative group said last week that it has been prohibited from sponsoring the conference for the third year in a row. While CPAC’s organizers have denied this claim, Log Cabin Republicans Executive Director Gregory T. Angelo put out a statement last week insisting that his multiple attempts to register as a CPAC sponsor have been denied.
“The only conclusion that can be made is that the organizers of CPAC do not feel gay people can be conservative,” Angelo wrote in his statement. According to ACU Chairman Matt Schlapp, however, the group never applied to sponsor the 2015 event.
“Had they applied, they would have been subjected to the same review as every other application,” Schlapp told Politico last week. “All conservatives, including gay conservatives, are welcome to be at CPAC. In fact, we have invited mainstage and breakout panelists who are conservative and gay, and we thank them for their contribution to our movement and CPAC 2015.”
Schlapp noted that this year’s lineup of speakers includes two openly gay conservative commentators. “If we didn’t want to include gay people at CPAC we wouldn’t be including gay people at CPAC, and we are.”
Two days before the start of this year’s conference, Angelo announced that he’d been invited to represent the Log Cabin Republicans in a panel titled “Putin’s Russia: A New Cold War?” In a statement, Angelo wrote that “there has been a great deal of confusion over the last 48 hours regarding the Log Cabin Republicans' role in CPAC 2015.”
“For years, all we have wanted is for Log Cabin Republicans to be able to provide a meaningful contribution to CPAC, be it as sponsors, speakers, or panelists. Now is not the time to make the perfect the enemy of the good,” Angelo wrote. “Log Cabin Republicans will continue working toward full sponsorship of future CPACs. In the meantime, I look forward to bringing the gay conservative perspective to CPAC 2015 on behalf of Log Cabin Republicans, as well as the message that when conservatives focus on unity rather than division, we win.”