Conservatives’ signature Washington gathering moved into full swing Thursday with calls from an influential GOP governor for the party to “go big, go bold,” now that Republicans have control of Congress and the White House for the first time in a decade.
With that control comes pressure to deliver on long-sought policy priorities, and the four-day Conservative Political Action Conference marks one of activists’ first big post-election brainstorming sessions on how to achieve those goals.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a conservative icon dating back to his high-profile fights with labor unions, rallied the crowd at the convention center just outside D.C. Thursday as he urged attendees not to “get caught up in Washington.”
As for the agenda ahead, he urged President Trump and conservatives to “go bold.”
"Do what you said you were going to do,” said Walker, a former presidential candidate.
The conference at National Harbor in Maryland features a host of lawmakers and officials -- including top White House advisers and Vice President Pence on Thursday, and President Trump on Friday morning.
White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway predicted Thursday morning that the energy surrounding the new president is so intense, “tomorrow it will be TPAC when he’s here.”
During her remarks on the CPAC stage, Conway lauded her boss’s ability to make supporters feel like they’re part of a movement.
“He went right to the grassroots and brought you along,” she said.
The conference was from the outset a departure from recent CPAC gatherings, which for the last eight years were used to bash the Obama administration. Now, Republicans are in control and working on their own agenda.
“The conservative movement has elected a Republican president,” American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp said Wednesday, at the start of the annual conference, which his group sponsors. “It’s not so much now about complaining about President Obama’s agenda as it is about what we’ll do with political power and the responsibility to get the economy moving.”
Leaders are hoping to use the conference to strategize about what they can accomplish and to better articulate their values at a time when the very definition of conservatism has seemed to waver.
But much of the buzz around the four-day event has centered on CPAC organizers pulling the speaking slot of “alt-right” provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, after the release of an audio tape in which he made what Schlapp called “disgusting” comments.
Yiannopoulos seems on the year-old tape to defend adults having sex with minors. Yiannopoulos apologized this week for the comments and said he had been sexually abused as a teen.
Schlapp said Wednesday that CPAC invited Yiannopoulos because the backlash he faced for his college talks were part of a large, chilling effect regarding free speech on campus.
“We understand the alt-right, but it has no voice in conservativism,” Schlapp said. “Bigotry has no voice in conservativism.”
The attendance of Trump, the first president since Ronald Reagan to visit CPAC in a first term, has indeed brought some energy to the 44-year-old event.
But other scheduled speakers and events -- including the speech by Pence and a one-on-one Thursday between White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Trump strategist Steve Bannon -- are also attracting a lot of interest.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.