OXON HILL, Maryland — The rift within the Republican Party was on dramatic display here this week as thousands of conservative activists, gathered together for an annual conference, struggled to make sense of Donald Trump’s hold on the GOP.
The Conservative Political Action Conference, traditionally intended as a forum to rally the American right, provided a meeting space for a small but vocal minority of attendees who proclaim they won’t support their presidential nominee if his name is Donald J. Trump.
The uprising, which uses the slogan #NeverTrump on social media to spread its message, considers Trump to be a threat to conservatism and the Republican Party. Their ranks include students, lifelong conservative activists, professional Republican political consultants and bloggers, many of whom say they will stay home on Election Day and even some who claim they will help Hillary Clinton in the fall.
“I’ve promised that I will phone bank for Hillary if he’s the nominee,” said Ben Howe, a contributing editor at Red State, a conservative website. “I think (Trump) is a vulgar, sociopathic liar and I don’t want him out there saying he represents me.”
The intense sentiment from some conservatives comes as other powerful voices within the Republican Party take drastic measures to stop Trump before he reaches the delegates needed to clinch the nomination. This week, former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney delivered a speech in Utah calling on the party to rally against the real estate mogul and anti-Trump super PACs have begun negative ad blitzes across the country.
Not all on the right, of course, are willing to go to pledge opposition to Trump. His supporters filled seats at CPAC, although certainly not in the same numbers as those for Cruz or Rubio. And his backers here contend that some have such strong reactions against Trump are based in fear of his challenges to the status quo.
“They’re scared,” said Nicole Been, who leads Students For Trump at DePaul University. “Because they know that the establishment is going down if Trump gets in.”
Ironically, it was at this same conference where Trump delivered his first major political speech as a possible Republican presidential contender in 2011. Trump’s remarks were well received at the time, and he was even invited back to speak in 2013, 2014 and last year. But now, as Trump has risen in the GOP primaries to become the undisputed front-runner, his relationship with some of these activists, who are skeptical about his ideological moorings and offended by his vitriolic campaign rhetoric, has gone cold.
Trump was scheduled to speak at the conference Saturday, but he canceled his plans Friday, opting to hold a rally in Kansas instead. Organizers were furious.
“When you come to CPAC as a presidential candidate you’re paying respects to conservative voters who make up two-thirds of those who pull the levers in these states,” said Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, the group that hosts the conference. “I think it’s a big mistake for him not to be here.”
Despite the headwinds, Trump continues to plow ahead. He came out of Super Tuesday this week with an estimated 336 delegates, ahead of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s 234, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s 113 and Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s 27.
The four will next face off in a debate hosted by CNN in Miami on Thursday.