How Orlando became the center of the universe for GOP Senate hopefuls

Mehmet Oz
© Marc Levy/AP Photo
For Mehmet Oz, a heart surgeon who rose to fame as a television health expert, CPAC offered a valuable occasion to solidify his conservative bona fides.

By Natalie Allison, POLITICO
ORLANDO, Florida

Mehmet Oz has less than 90 days left before Pennsylvania Republican voters cast their ballots in one of the most contentious Senate primaries in the nation. Every day and every event matters, especially to a candidate like him who only recently moved back to the state.

Yet Oz could be found in Florida this weekend along with more than a dozen other Republican Senate hopefuls, aiming to make an impression at the Conservative Political Action Conference. In fact, he was slated to be here twice: He flew in Friday for an event, hopped on a 6 a.m. flight Saturday to make it back home for campaign stops, and then was scheduled to return here Sunday to take part in a panel discussion with other conservative doctors.

For candidates like Oz who are hoping to appeal to the GOP base in competitive primaries, there were few better places to be over the past four days than CPAC. There were chances to network with grassroots leaders and address the party’s most influential activists. To find new donors. To get air time on the most-watched right-wing news outlets.

In short, it was a unique opportunity for candidates to burnish their MAGA credentials and establish their credibility in front of America’s largest gathering of conservatives.

“I think that everyone recognizes that CPAC is a gathering of patriots,” said Eric Greitens, the former governor of Missouri and one of 15 Republican Senate candidates with a speaking slot. “We’ve had tremendous support from people in Missouri who watched our CPAC speech. They tuned in specifically to see what I was saying at CPAC — so that has been very helpful.”

Greitens’ Thursday speech wasn’t his campaign’s only boost this weekend. Unlike most candidates, who stopped in at the gathering long enough to speak and shake a few hands, Greitens was at the conference for the long haul, spending hours each day roaming media row.

He met with and secured new financial backers. He gave more than a dozen interviews with conservative outlets, streaming to potential small-dollar donors.

Perhaps most significantly, the event represented something of a return to normalcy for Greitens — a chance for the former governor, who in 2018 was forced to resign from office in scandal, to now make his debut on the most important stage in conservative politics. Polling as the frontrunner in the primary race, Greitens is facing significant pushback from national Republican leaders and operatives who say his past would make him a weak general election candidate.

“Obviously, the opportunity to do all of this media helps us to get our message out in Missouri and to patriots around the country who want to support the race,” Greitens said.

Missouri was one of several states where Republican primary rivals got speaking slots at the conference, though opponents were never face-to-face. In addition to Greitens, state Attorney General Eric Schmitt delivered an address.

North Carolina Senate primary opponents Rep. Ted Budd and former Rep. Mark Walker also featured at CPAC — while Budd has former President Donald Trump’s endorsement in the race, Walker is still framing himself as an America First candidate, courting the conservative evangelical vote in the state.

In Budd’s case, CPAC was a preferred venue over a debate stage back home. Budd spoke Friday on a Candace Owens-moderated panel here about schools, but declined to participate in a Republican primary debate in Raleigh the next day.

“Yes, we’re out of North Carolina right now, but there’s a lot of North Carolinians who come here,” said Budd, who has now spoken at three CPAC events. “It’s like a little bit of a family reunion when you come here.”

For some candidates, the chance to deliver a speech at CPAC was a point of pride. In Pennsylvania’s crowded Senate race, Oz, Carla Sands and Jeff Bartos were all given speaking slots. But David McCormick, a top contender, was not a featured speaker.

When asked about McCormick, who made remarks at a private luncheon here Thursday, Oz smirked.

“All I know is I got invited by Matt to speak on Sunday morning,” Oz said, referring to Matt Schlapp, the Trump ally who chairs CPAC. “It’s a pretty difficult speaking gig to pull off. It might be the right time, right place. I’m just looking forward to doing a good job at it.”

The conference offered Oz, a heart surgeon who rose to fame as a television health expert, a valuable occasion to solidify his conservative bona fides. As television ads back in Pennsylvania seek to portray him as a Hollywood liberal, at CPAC, swarms of conference-goers surrounded him while he walked through the exhibit halls. A candidate from another state approached him, begging for a congressional endorsement. Reporters from right-wing outlets lined up to interview him.

“I always say if people don’t understand the power of CPAC, then they don’t get it,” said Mercedes Schlapp, a former Trump staffer who is married to Matt Schlapp and hosts a CPAC show online.

Ohio GOP Senate opponents Josh Mandel and J.D. Vance, both of whom had speaking slots, were also in attendance. The youngest candidates in the state’s sharp-elbowed primary, they have built large Twitter followings by making controversial, often bombastic statements. But the two employed different strategies at CPAC: Mandel, in his free time, on Friday roamed media row, posing for photos and chatting with attendees and reporters. Vance remained backstage before giving his speech on Saturday.

Mandel also used the time to meet and greet with young conservative activists from Ohio, including at least one college student whom he ribbed for defending Vance. Mandel called his opponent a “Never Trumper,” a nod to Vance’s stance against Trump in the 2016 election.

The student told Mandel he believed Vance had changed.

“You’re right,” Mandel said to the student. “J.D. changes his positions every day.”

Kelly Tshibaka, the Trump-backed challenger to Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, used her Thursday speaking time to tell her story of working-class roots and criticize the incumbent by name. In front of a friendly audience, Tshibaka made the case for why she wanted to oust the three-term senator, who has found herself at odds with Trump. Murkowski has a significant fundraising advantage over Tshibaka, as well as the backing of Senate Republicans.

Exposure at CPAC is “critical” for a candidate like Tshibaka who is looking to “make a splash in the national conservative world,” said Tim Murtaugh, a Republican strategist working on Tshibaka’s campaign.

“It shows them that you’re for real, and it helps define who the rising stars are,” he said, describing CPAC and the American Conservative Union, the organization that puts on the conference, as “crucial to building the national network that you need, especially if you’re trying to beat an entrenched incumbent.”

The visibility at CPAC was valuable enough that it was worth the trip even for candidates who failed to secure a coveted speaking time.

Missouri Senate candidate Mark McCloskey and his wife, Patricia — the couple who briefly became conservative heroes after they confronted protesters by brandishing guns on their St. Louis lawn in 2020 — found it useful just to mingle with the crowd.

McCloskey, who has struggled to gain traction as a candidate, on Friday claimed that the pair had already met about 1,000 people at CPAC, including many who wanted to take selfies and get their autographs.

Another Missouri Senate hopeful, Rep. Billy Long, also failed to secure an on-stage speaking opportunity. But Long figured out another way to stand out before the conservative crowd. Wearing a tuxedo and white sneakers, Long — who is a member of the National Auctioneers Association Hall of Fame — instead served as auctioneer during the conference’s Ronald Reagan Dinner.

Long explained that he usually requests a speaking opportunity at the annual conference, but it’s “pretty tough to get on the main stage for speaking.”

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item News | Breaking News, US News, World News: How Orlando became the center of the universe for GOP Senate hopefuls
How Orlando became the center of the universe for GOP Senate hopefuls
More than a dozen Republican candidates took time out this week for a Florida campaign detour. News | Breaking News, US News, World News
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