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Many would-be presidential candidates will skip CPAC because it's mired in scandal


CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, begins today.


Yeah. It commonly draws thousands of activists in a year like this one, the year before a presidential election. It gives would-be presidential hopefuls a chance to make their case. But this year, the event is marred by scandal before it even begins.

INSKEEP: For starters, its leader has been accused of sexual misconduct. He has close ties to former President Trump. NPR's senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro is here.

Domenico, good morning.


INSKEEP: OK. Who's at the center of all this?

MONTANARO: Well, we're talking about Matt Schlapp, who is chairman of the American Conservative Union, which runs CPAC, and Schlapp has been in charge of the event since 2014. It's changed significantly in that time. You know, Schlapp is responsible for expanding it to become really an international brand. But CPAC also in that time has embraced the far right, both here and abroad. That's largely because CPAC is like a conservative weather vane. You know, it turns on a hinge, depending on where the movement is and where it's going. And over the last several years, that's meant Trumpism. And Schlapp, who's married to Mercedes Schlapp, the former communications adviser in the Trump White House, has been something of a cheerleader for Trump.

INSKEEP: Well, what trouble does he face now?

MONTANARO: Well, the problems for Schlapp stem from a $9 million civil lawsuit that was filed in January by a former staffer on the Herschel Walker Senate campaign. The lawsuit accuses Schlapp of making, quote, "advances and unwanted and nonconsensual touching and fondling" in October of last year. The Washington Post yesterday had an extensive report on the culture and his conduct at CPAC. A former communications director alleged that Schlapp fired her out of retaliation because she complained about what she said were a coworker's sexist and racist comments.

The Post also reported that he was taking a $600,000 salary at CPAC, when in the past it's been a volunteer position mostly. And his wife was also receiving six figures for, quote, "strategic communications." The Post also reported that he was investigated for making an anti-gay remark while he was a senior staffer at Koch Industries, and Schlapp left the company shortly after an internal review.

INSKEEP: OK. You mentioned strategic communications. I'm imagining that the CPAC organization needs a little strategic communication now that their head is in such trouble. So how are they responding?

MONTANARO: Well, you know, they're largely defending Schlapp. Carolyn Meadows, who's second vice chair at CPAC, said that under Schlapp's leadership, quote, "CPAC has grown into a professionalized organization focused on bolstering grassroots conservative activism" and "impacting policy," focusing on "prioritizing individual liberty in America and around the world" - nothing there about the specific allegations. A board member did tell The Post, though, that they will be meeting about them. Former President Trump, though, for his part, so far stood by Schlapp, literally on stage with him days after the lawsuit was filed.

INSKEEP: I guess there are still going to be thousands of activists who show up for this thing.

MONTANARO: Yeah. You know, this - they have had a drop in ticket sales this year - you know, some prominent Republican names choosing not to attend, like Trump rival Ron DeSantis - potential rival, if he runs - the Florida governor, who may be gearing up for a 2024 presidential run. Mostly, I want to see if this is going to still be the Trump show, or is there a desire for something else? In addition to Trump, the other two officially declared GOP candidates - Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor, as well as tech and finance CEO Vivek Ramaswamy - will be speaking. But how are they all received? You know, does someone like DeSantis do well at the straw poll even though he's not there? This is really going to be all questions I have at the event - as this event has changed over the years.

INSKEEP: NPR's Domenico Montanaro.

Thanks as always.

MONTANARO: You're so welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.