Dallas (CNN)As Texas’ battle over voting rights continues to unfold during the special session in Austin, the outrage stoked by former President Donald Trump’s false 2020 election claims was still on full display Saturday a few hours north at the major gathering of conservative activists where Trump will be welcomed as the star attraction Sunday.
Republicans are facing a set of highly competitive midterm elections in 2022 and still attempting to shape an agenda that will break through to voters. But the conversation at the Conservative Political Action Conference this weekend reaffirmed once again that the core activists of the Republican Party have no intention of moving on from Trump or the false claims he has trumpeted that the 2020 election was fraudulent, even though there is no evidence of widespread voting fraud in last year’s contest.
Normally, CPAC events serve as an audition arena for the next slate of future Republican presidential contenders. But there was scarcely a hint of that here this weekend as Trump’s flirtation with another run for president in 2024 has effectively frozen the field — with his Sunday speech serving as the main draw for attendees.
Blue flags adorning a truck in the parking lot bore the slogan “Trump Won.” Exhibition booths overflowed with Trump hats, flags, and other “45” swag. One 2024 T-shirt pictured Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis but only standing next to Trump as his potential vice president. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who will speak Sunday before Trump, mentioned the former president within the first two minutes of her last CPAC speech and has allied herself so closely with him that GOP voters often say they’d like to see her as his No. 2 instead of Mike Pence in 2024.
At a gathering branded as “America UnCanceled,” Donald Trump Jr. warmed up the crowd on Friday night with quick-witted condemnations of cancel culture and digs at Hunter Biden. But his biggest applause line wasn’t even his own. During his speech, an attendee bellowed “Trump won!” eliciting a standing ovation and setting off a round of “Trump” chants.
During a midday Saturday panel that was intended to be a “tough love” assessment of the Republican Party, GOP donor Bubba Saulsbury acknowledged that it has been difficult to shift the attention of both donor and voters to future contests because they are still “livid” about the 2020 outcome.
“I know we need to talk about moving forward, but we’ve got to be honest with ourselves about where we’ve been and what happened,” said Saulsbury, adding that every donor he’s met “believes that there was some level of election fraud.”
“Talking to all the donors — they’re apprehensive to donate to anything but election integrity right now, because their thoughts are, ‘Why am I going to spend my money if it’s not going to be a free and fair election?'” Saulsbury said.
Another Saturday headliner, GOP Rep. Jody Hice, who is challenging incumbent Republican Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger — the Georgia state official who infuriated Trump by overseeing three ballot counts confirming Joe Biden’s victory in Georgia — steered a panel about Covid-19 toward the topic of election security. When Hice was asked how he would ensure that Americans get the correct information about the Delta variant this fall, he pivoted back to 2020.
“I firmly believe this is the fight of our life politically,” Hice told the crowd to applause. “If we lose election integrity, we lose everything. So that’s my focus right now.” He declined to provide any further comment to CNN.
Trump the headliner
On Sunday, the conference is set to open with two men who just recently addressed a QAnon-affiliated conference: Texas GOP Chair Allen West, who has announced plans to challenge Greg Abbott in the Texas governor’s race, and Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert.
Also on the agenda: A presentation on the future of American elections, the second election fraud panel of the three-day conference.
The event also drew Proud Boys as well as the founder of the Oath Keepers, who was recently interviewed by the FBI about his role in the January 6 insurrection, according to the New York Times. He has not been charged with criminal wrongdoing.
Trump will essentially close out the conference Sunday afternoon, after the announcement of the results of CPAC’s straw poll which is intended to measure voters’ interest in the potential GOP White House contenders. One question includes Trump on a list of potential 2024 candidates; the other does not.
But no matter what Trump decides to do in 2024, his refusal to accept his 2020 election defeat is effectively shaping the GOP agenda nationwide a year and a half before the next set of elections.
Republican-led states across the country have put forward more restrictive voting laws, with lawmakers pointing to concerns about nonexistent widespread election fraud to defend the new measures. Laws have already passed in Florida and Georgia, and Texas lawmakers were engaged in a special session of the Legislature over the weekend, debating their own set of proposals that could make it harder to vote. During the 2021 legislative sessions, the Brennan Center for Justice tracked at least 389 bills to restrict voting that were introduced 48 states.
GOP lawmakers have also seized on the opportunity to push post-election audits, yet another way to undermine election confidence, raise money and curry favor with Trump. The so-called audit in Maricopa County, Arizona — which continues to drag on — has drawn Republican lawmakers from multiple states that have expressed interested in launching similar reviews. A Trump ally in Pennsylvania pressed forward with his plans for an election audit last week, sending requests to three counties for everything from their tabulation equipment to voter rolls.
During the CPAC conference white cards were circulating among some attendees with a “7-Pt. plan to restore Donald J. Trump in days, not years.” After the violence at the Capitol on January 6, federal officials are paying more attention to those sorts of fringe theories.
CPAC organizers did not respond to CNN’s request for comment about the cards.
Trump and his allies have encouraged the ludicrous claims that he could be reinstated as President next month. But they have gained enough traction to lead the Department of Homeland Security to issue a warning last month that Trump’s “reinstatement” fantasies could lead to more violence this summer from right-wing extremists.