Denver — Some 500 conservative activists convened here over the weekend for the annual RedState Gathering, an event that traditionally functions as a pep rally for the Republican grassroots.
This year, though, it felt like a funeral.
The mood was decidedly dour as attendees spoke — from the main stage, at their tables, and over adult beverages — in disbelieving tones about the state of the presidential race and the inadequacies of their party’s nominee, Donald Trump.
The event offered a unique window into how conservative activists are coping with 2016, and how they might hope to pick up the pieces after November 8. There were telling moments. At one point, the hosts aired a video message from Speaker Paul Ryan in which he spoke about the future of conservatism. When it ended, only a handful of people in the ballroom applauded.
Here are five observations from the event:
1. There Was Tension over Trump
RedState.com, the popular conservative blog, has earned a reputation for being passionately anti-Trump. This largely owes to former editor Erick Erickson and current editor Leon Wolf, both of whom have been outspoken critics of the Republican nominee. One might have assumed, then, that most — if not all — attendees at their conference would share their opposition to Trump. But that assumption was proven wrong.
In a reminder that the conservative movement is far from monolithic, there was a respectable contingent of Trump supporters in the crowd, at least one of them wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat, to the chagrin of his neighbors. The clear majority in attendance were Trump detractors, however, and some of them were not shy about voicing their displeasure with his loyalists in the room.
At one point Saturday afternoon, Wolf, who emceed the event, opened the floor for an audience discussion due to a speaker’s cancellation. The session quickly devolved into a debate over Trump, and grew somewhat tense when a Trump supporter stayed at the microphone and continued talking after being told to give others an opportunity. Several audience members shouted at him to sit down. At another point, when a woman stood to argue that he is preferable to Hillary Clinton despite his many flaws, someone yelled over her, “The lesser of two evils is still evil!”
After a period of this, Wolf — who reiterated his own opposition to Trump, but emphasized that he understood the pro-Trump positions being articulated — ended the discussion, sensing the mounting friction in the room.
2. Ben Sasse Stole the Show
Attendees were buzzing all weekend long in anticipation of a Saturday night speech from Nebraska’s freshman senator, who gained sudden prominence in the spring by denouncing both Trump and Clinton as “dumpster fires.”
He did not disappoint.
In a sharp and confidently delivered speech, Sasse outlined his philosophical support for the government’s role in dealing with “small-ball policy issues” (biannual budgeting), and “epic policy issues” (cyber-warfare, entitlement reform), while entrusting the “foundational issues” (preserving and promoting “the American idea”) to families and communities.
Sasse, who cuts a unique profile as both an aw-shucks Midwesterner and an Ivy League-educated former college president, successfully came across as both intellectual and relatable. At one point, he touched on “Constitutional literalism” after sharing stories of his teenage daughter’s “icky” summer job at a Nebraska ranch. Striking this balance with the Republican base has proven exceedingly difficult for many talented politicians. But Sasse, in introducing himself to an influential constituency, pulled it off.
“@BenSasse just gave one of the most important speeches I’ve ever heard,” tweeted conservative commentator Guy Benson. “Let’s get this guy in front of a crowd.” (The only negative: Sasse’s presentation went 55 minutes, including Q&A time, inviting jokes about how senators love the sound of their own voice.)
Sasse played down his political ambitions, expressing disgust with senators who cling to power and spend their lives in elected office. But the Nebraska senator was already being discussed as a rising star who could challenge for the GOP nomination in 2020. Saturday’s speech will only further fuel that speculation.
And it’s worth nothing that Sasse’s biography — a Cornhusker fan who homeschools his three children — could play awfully well in a certain neighboring state.
3. Cory Gardner Had an Uneven Performance
Gardner is universally viewed as one of the Republican party’s brightest young legislators — a telegenic, articulate former representative who was viewed as a potential speaker of the House before embarking on a successful and widely celebrated Senate run in 2014.
Gardner’s national footprint, however, is relatively invisible. The RedState Gathering in his back yard was a golden opportunity for him to raise his profile among conservatives and elbow his way into the conversation about the party’s future.
The content of his speech was effective. He cited specific local examples to hammer the government for over-regulating businesses; minutes later, he broadened and spoke in sweeping tones about the revolution against Britain, Thomas Paine’s writings, and the gift of self-governance. With eyes closed, one could easily envision this speech being delivered in Iowa or New Hampshire.
So Gardner has obvious political talent. But the delivery of his remarks on Saturday was a bit clunky — points not properly emphasized, punch lines delivered off-key. This lack of rhetorical polish would have been less memorable without several awkward exchanges during Gardner’s Q&A session.
When an attendee asked why he’d voted for Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Gardner responded that his questioner should “check the congressional record” — that he had not voted to confirm Loretta Lynch. Gardner then explained somewhat clumsily that he had, however, voted for cloture to end debate on Lynch’s nomination. “If we don’t have debate and votes . . . we will never get anything done,” he said. A man in the back heckled him: “So you voted for Loretta Lynch!”
A few minutes later, after Gardner made remarks to the effect that Colorado is not a competitive state for Trump — an assertion supported by reams of public polling — a woman shot to her feet as he noted his time was up. “I have something to say, and I’m a constituent of Colorado!” She proceeded to lecture Gardner on downplaying Trump’s chances in the state, stating — falsely — that polls similarly showed he had no chance to win his Senate race in 2014. Gardner smiled and listened politely, then quickly slipped off stage to scattered applause.
4. Carly Fiorina Is a Crowd Favorite
Save for Sasse, it was Fiorina who got the weekend’s warmest reception.
Fiorina was already a known commodity to some of these activists prior to her presidential run, thanks to chairing the American Conservative Union’s foundation board. And she appears to have strengthened her standing among conservatives after her 2016 campaign and subsequent (albeit short-lived) time as Ted Cruz’s running mate.
Fiorina’s speech had a little bit of everything. She supplied humor (and some red meat) by drawing a lengthy comparison between Hillary Clinton and Claire Underwood from House of Cards. She preached hope, reassuring attendees that America will remain the greatest nation on earth despite this November’s election. And she recycled some self-promotional lines from her campaign, reminding the RedState audience that she had risen from secretary of a small real-estate firm to become CEO of the world’s largest technology company. When she finished, she enjoyed a lengthy standing ovation.
It’s obvious Fiorina plans to stay in the political arena. Her appearance here came on the heels of a Time report last week that she is preparing to seek the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee. To win that job, Fiorina will need allies in the grassroots around the country lobbying their state GOP officials on her behalf. Saturday could pay dividends in that regard.
5. Headliners Ignored the Elephant in the Room
Given the host and the ideological composition of the audience, it wouldn’t have been surprising to hear two days of dumping on Donald Trump.
Instead, the event’s premier speakers — Sasse, Gardner, and Fiorina — barely uttered his name. All three speeches offered soaring proclamations of national resilience, and tacitly argued that not even a Trump nomination (or presidency) could undo 240 years of American exceptionalism. There was not a single line, however, explicitly attacking the Republican nominee.
It was surprising, given that all three speakers have been harsh critics of Trump — and were likely invited to RedState in no small part because of it.