As the 45th Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, begins Wednesday, a look at the event’s sponsors shows a collection of outside spending groups, prominent conservative activist organizations, think tanks and media outlets.
A who’s-who of conservative money networks, many sponsors are promoted in CPAC’s’ panels and events, and often onstage rubbing elbows with the influencers currently driving grassroots conservative politics.
CPAC touts itself as “the birthplace of modern conservatism,” and has long been observed for the pulse of the conservative movement. President Donald Trump’s appearances at the event before his presidential bid have been credited by some for raising his profile among movement conservatives in the years before the 2016 Republican primary.
Behind CPAC is the American Conservative Union a conservative lobbying organization and outside spending group which organizes the event. In the last election cycle, ACU spent $258,000 in support of Republican candidates, according to data tracked by the Center for Responsive Politics.
2018 was ACU’s biggest year for lobbying since 2005. Last year the group spent $540,000 on lobbying, advocating for bills ranging from net neutrality, pro-sugar industry regulation, budget cuts and sentencing reform.
ACU’s going rate for a sponsorship buy-in at CPAC costs thousands of dollars. The lowest level of sponsorship, a “participating sponsor,” costs $7,000, with the highest level, a “platinum sponsor,” running at $250,000.
Sponsorship not only buys organizations extensive promotion at the event, but many sponsors have their own panels, speakers and events at CPAC. As one “ACU insider” told the Daily Beast last year: “That’s one of the bigger benefits of sponsorship… the higher you sponsor, the higher the chances your speaker and your panel topic will happen at CPAC.”
Yet the subject of panels and events is reached through “consensus” by CPAC’s organizers and not by sponsors, according to Ian Walters, ACU’s communications director. Planning committees in the run-up to the event, which can include people affiliated with sponsors, plan the event’s schedule before sponsors are ultimately decided, Walters said. He added that it would be inaccurate to say sponsors have any limiting influence on potential events or panels.
“It’s about as public and transparent a process as there can be,” Walters said.
This year, CPAC has two “platinum sponsors” spending $250,000. One is Liberty HealthShare, a health care cost-sharing company. The other is Dragging Canoe – Pigeon Forge.
Dragging Canoe is the only sponsor without a hyperlink to its website on CPAC’s sponsors page. It is an upcoming “a second-amendment themed entertainment venue and restaurant in Pigeon Forge” slated to open in 2020, according to Walters. CPAC was approached by Dragging Canoe’s owners last year for a potential sponsorship.
Google searches provide no information about the company. A Dragging Canoe, LLC was registered as a business with the Tennessee Secretary of State last November and lists a for-sale empty building in Maryville, Tennessee as its address. Despite being an up-and-coming business, Dragging Canoe is sponsoring CPAC’s $250 a ticket “Ronald Reagan Dinner and Reception” on Friday night.
The next level of sponsorship at CPAC, “presenting sponsors” who spent $125,000, include the National Rifle Association, the GOP, and Liberty, a Japanese cryptocurrency start-up.
The event, in turn, has multiple panels on the second amendment and gun control, including a speech by NRA president and Iran-Contra figure Lt. Col. Oliver North. The co-founder of Liberty, Jikido “Jay” Aeba of the Japanese Conservative Union, will participate in a panel about cryptocurrency.
While not all events and speakers represent sponsors, those that do have extensive real estate in CPAC’s agenda. The Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank, spent $60,000 to sponsor the event. A number of Heritage Foundation staff are to appear on stage throughout the week, and the think tank will host events on censorship of conservatives and election security.
The Center for Security Policy, another think tank and longtime sponsor, spent $12,000 to sponsor CPAC this year. CSP has long been criticized as Islamophobic, and has promulgated conspiracy theories about Muslims, including an impending Sharia take-over of the United States and the infiltration of the U.S. government by the Muslim Brotherhood.
CPS is sponsoring multiple events at CPAC, including an event moderated by National Security Advisor John Bolton’s former chief of staff on “Why Anti-Zionism is a Form of Anti-Semitism and a Threat to National Security.” Frank Gaffney Jr., the controversial founder of CPS, will moderate his own event on CPAC about the persecution of Christians around the world.
Another major sponsor of CPAC is the Heartland Institute, a free-market think tank and previous sponsor. The Heartland Institute has positioned itself as a leading critic of climate science for many years, and has coordinated with the Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency to promote views denying climate change. As a $28,000-sponsor, Heartland is present throughout CPAC’s agenda. Its CEO has a stand-alone speech on Friday afternoon, and the group is sponsoring an event on “AOC’s Green New Deal: Debunking the Climate Alarmism Behind Bringing Full Socialism to America.”
Another CPAC sponsor is the Alliance of Conservative and Reformists in Europe, or ACRE, which represents the third-largest political party in the European Parliament. While ACRE includes member parties outside of Europe like the GOP, the conservative party of Canada and Likud in Israel, it has within its parliamentary ranks the controversial far-right parties of Poland, Italy, Denmark and Bulgaria.
ACRE will host an event at CPAC on “Building a Stronger Transatlantic Security and Defense Cooperation” featuring the Polish ambassador to the United States.
There are other ties to the European right-wing at CPAC. Italian lawmaker Giorgia Meloni, an ally of Matteo Salvini, Italy’s controversial deputy prime minister, will appear on a panel with ACU board member José Cárdenas and Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Fla.) on “Democracy Breaking through Darkness: Can Europe and Venezuela be Liberated?”
Though not listed as an official sponsor, Heritage Action for America, a lobbying organization and outside spending group, has a number of sponsored events throughout CPAC’s agenda. Heritage Action for America spent nearly $2 million supporting Republican candidates in the last-election cycle.
Reporters for conservative media outlets who paid thousands of dollars to sponsor CPAC are also featured prominently throughout the event’s agenda.
The Washington Times, which spent $60,000 to sponsor the event, has 6 of its reporters appearing on-stage. The Daily Caller, a participating sponsor, has four reporters featured at CPAC, one of whom publicly apologized earlier this month for racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic old tweets.
As CPAC commences, it remains at the intersection of grassroots conservatism and big-money influence. The event too remains a prominent spot for GOP officialdom, shown by its upcoming appearances by numerous Republican lawmakers as well as President Trump.