Two dueling high-profile Republican gatherings this week – one featuring former President Donald Trump and the other Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis – showcase the deepening divide within the GOP as it barrels toward its 2024 nominating process.
Trump is scheduled to headline the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland this week along with several conservative stars who have pushed election conspiracy theories and are closely allied with the former president. Meanwhile, DeSantis, who is expected to launch his own 2024 bid later this year, will skip the annual conference and is instead expected to be the main draw at the conservative group Club for Growth’s private donor retreat in Florida this weekend.
Club for Growth, an anti-tax group at odds with Trump, is one of the biggest outside spenders in Republican politics. Trump was the only major 2024 hopeful not invited to the group’s Palm Beach donor retreat, which is expected to be attended by several potential 2024 Republican candidates who have opted not to attend CPAC.
Club for Growth plowed $2 million into DeSantis’ reelection campaign for governor last cycle, according to Florida campaign filings. As the group focuses on DeSantis, it is also weighing launching a large-scale effort to boost an alternative to Trump in four early voting states, according to a source familiar with the discussions. A Club official said the organization was “exploring a number of different strategies,” but had nothing to announce yet.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu are not on the schedule at CPAC but are expected to attend Club for Growth’s event. Other potential candidates, like Kristi Noem, skipped both. All but Sununu have previously spoken at prior gatherings of CPAC, which has long been considered an essential stop for any potential presidential candidate working to build conservative support.
Some Republicans linked the lackluster lineup at CPAC to recent allegations against Matt Schlapp, the president of the American Conservative Union, which puts on CPAC. A Republican strategist who was working for Herschel Walker’s Senate campaign alleged that Schlapp sexually assaulted him and is suing Schlapp and his wife for more than $9 million. Schlapp has denied the claims.
“It’s a scandal,” one Republican operative who has worked on several presidential campaigns told CNN. “If you are thinking about running for president and you’re not Donald Trump, you can’t afford a misstep. You can’t afford to be linked to a scandal.”
There will be some crossover at the dueling events, including Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley, who will fly to Florida after speaking at CPAC on Friday, according to a Haley spokesman. GOP 2024 candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, an entrepreneur seen as a longshot to win the nomination, will also speak at both, per a source familiar with the planning. Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rick Scott of Florida, who have both said they’re focused on their Senate reelections when asked about 2024, will also attend both CPAC and the Florida retreat.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin were invited to the Club for Growth retreat but are unable to attend, according to a source familiar with the planning. The Virginia state legislature concluded its session over the weekend but failed to reach an agreement on the state budget. Pompeo is scheduled to speak at CPAC, but Youngkin is not.
The rest of CPAC’s lineup features a slate of prominent election deniers and close allies of Trump, including defeated Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, as well as Trump family members Donald Trump Jr. and Lara Trump.
“It’s clear that the leftist media is on a search and destroy mission against CPAC, its leadership, and the conservative movement,” Megan Powers Small, a CPAC spokesperson, said. “We could fill many more days of programming with all of the people who have requested to speak. Any suggestion to the contrary is disingenuous.”
Club for Growth and Trump sparred during last year’s primaries as they backed different candidates in key states holding Senate primaries, including Ohio. When it was reported last month that Trump was not invited to the Club for Growth summit, the former president slammed the group as “an assemblage of political misfits, globalists, and losers” and as “Club for NO Growth” on his Truth Social account.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to make clear South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem skipped both events.