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Ally Mutnick

Never Trumpers rally in D.C., trying to find hope and a plan amid despair

"Trump is a cancer that's now metastasized," said former Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), shortly after wrapping a panel. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Donald Trump used his primetime stage at the CPAC conference this Saturday to taunt the Bush Republicans, globalists and neocons.

A dozen miles away, at a lower-profile gathering in downtown D.C. the remnants of that bygone GOP era gathered in a hotel ballroom, attempting once more to plot their way out of the obscurity into which the former president relegated them.

The two-day confab at the luxury Conrad Hotel, billed as the Principles First Summit, was implicitly constructed as a counterweight to the MAGA-fied Conservative Political Action Conference. But the programming also served to underscore the often-bleak, occasionally hopeless, existence that comes with being a modern day anti-Trump Republican.

The former Bush speechwriter turned columnist David Frum compared their effort to reform the party to blazing a landing strip in the middle of the jungle and simply waiting for planes to land. Former congressional candidate Clint Smith, who switched his party affiliation from Republican to Independent to challenge Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), described his state’s GOP as a forest of trees killed by an invasive species of beetle that crawls under bark to poison from the inside. Panels for the event included "Looking to 2024: Hope and Despair — but Mostly Despair" and "Can the GOP survive?"

If it all felt a bit dark at times, it was a reflection of the mood of some headliners.

"Trump is a cancer that's now metastasized," said former Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), shortly after wrapping the latter panel. "So it's going to kill the party more."

It’s been roughly six years since the dawn of the Never Trump movement. And, over that time period, it has not had much success — at least when it comes to reforming the party to which its members once belonged. But those within it feel as if a new political opportunity could be at hand with Trump’s vulnerable position in the party. The question they’re confronting is whether they can capitalize on it. By Sunday, they’d had some indications of how it would go. Larry Hogan, the former Maryland governor long seen as a centrist alternative to Trump in 2024, announced he would be forgoing a run for the presidency.

Despair, once again.

Organizers billed the gathering of 300 people from across the country as a strategy session for those who no longer feel welcome at the typical gathering of conservative activists. But it also provided a snapshot of how far the party has drifted in such a short period of time.

The summit itself is just three years old. A decade ago, many of the speakers at this year’s gathering were some of the party's rising stars and top thinkers. Adam Kinzinger. Bill Kristol. John Kasich. But those who held office have hit political dead ends (Comstock notably lost by 12 points in a 2018 Trump-charged suburban revolt) and the anti-Trump talking heads found their usual confines less inviting. Of the few current elected officials who spoke at the Principles First Summit, two of them were Democrats: Maryland Gov. Wes Moore and Arizona Secretary of State Adrian Fontes.

The more immediate problem, however, may be that those in attendance don't even agree on a way out of their conundrum. One example: Charlie Sykes, a Wisconsin political commentator, asked John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, to address the criticism that he refused to testify in Trump’s first impeachment trial but then profited by writing a tell-all book.

Some in attendance wanted to reform the GOP from within. Others were resigned to boosting moderate Democrats over election-denying populists.

"It turns out that once you let the toothpaste out of the tube, so to speak, demagoguery and bigotry and all that, some people like it. It's hard to get it back." Kristol said. "You can't just give them a lecture."

"We need to defeat the Trump Republicans. And if that means being with the Democrats for a while, that's fine," he added, suggesting a presidential ticket of Democrats Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia. "That's fine with me."

Ronald Solomon works at his merchandise stand at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Md. on March 2, 2023. | Francis Chung/POLITICO

The people who convened at the Conrad have little in common with those who attended the Trump coronation ceremony down the river at CPAC. The latter aired a music video of a song the Jan. 6 defendants recorded from prison. The former gave Michael Fanone, the former D.C. police officer who was brutally attacked on Jan. 6, an award (after which he hung around to sign copies of his new book) and introduced Kinzinger, who was one of two Republicans on Congress's committee investigating the attacks, as its "patron saint."

Instead of MAGA hats and Trumpinator shirts, attendees wore navy blazers with American and Ukrainian flag pins affixed to the lapel. At least one Lincoln Project hat was spotted in the crowd.

There were no photo ops in a replica of the Oval Office, but attendees could visit a table in the lobby to learn about the benefits of ranked-choice voting and purchase some cookies from a booth set up by Daisy Girl Scouts. No declared presidential candidates came to woo the room. But Hogan did tape a video message that played shortly after he announced he wasn’t mounting a White House run.

Over the course of some 20 panels and speeches, the tone bounced from upbeat to nostalgic to despondent. One group debated whether Trump or Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis would be a worse nominee (no consensus was reached). At times, the proceedings had the feel of a collective therapy session — especially when it came to reliving the events of Jan. 6, 2021.

"It's depressing if you speak out," said Alyssa Farah Griffin, a former Trump aide turned View host who moderated that panel. "Everyone of us has received death threats for simply telling the truth."

"There are members of my family that don’t speak to me. They actually think I’m an enemy of the state," said Olivia Troye, a national security official who resigned from Vice President Mike Pence's office in August 2020. "It's almost like you're trying to teach critical thinking to someone again."

In the audience was Caroline Wren, a top Trump fundraiser who helped coordinate the Jan. 6 rally. Her presence seemed, on the surface, like an attempt to troll Principles First organizers, who saw she registered and were anxious anticipating her arrival. Wren told POLITICO she was just there to listen and appeared surprised her presence caused suspicion.

For many featured speakers, the crushing personal toll of opposing Trump and speaking out against Jan. 6 was a common theme.

"I had my co-pilot in the war that told me I should have just stayed a pilot because I'm a terrible politician," Kinzinger said. "And he was ashamed to have fought with me."

Michael Wood, who ran for a special congressional election in 2021 in Texas on an anti-Trump platform and got 3.2 percent of the vote, moderated a panel on whether the GOP could survive Trumpism. His opening question: "What evidence is there for any sort of optimism?"

“At some point,” Wood remarked later, “you have to ask yourself, 'Am I going to keep going into these rooms that boo me? Hate me? Send me mean messages?'”

Comstock, once one of her party’s most touted incumbents and most effective operatives, said she had all but lost hope about the future of the GOP. But, she added, there remained glimmers: far-right GOP nominees for governor and secretary of state in Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania all fell to Democrats. "Pat yourself on the back that Kari Lake lost, Tudor Dixon lost and Josh Shapiro won."

"It's all loserville over there at CPAC," she added.

The losses of MAGA Republicans was one of the threads of joy that surfaced at Principles First Summit. Indeed, Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump strategist, suggested that the way to restore sanity to the GOP would be for it to suffer “sustained electoral defeats.”

But others weren’t content to see Republicans somehow bottom out before building the party back up again. Former Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan — who was chased out of office by Trump — offered a vague formula for reform from within. The GOP, he said, needed to focus on policy, empathy, and tone.

But even as he laid out a “five-point strategic roadmap” to reclaim the party, he couldn’t hide his joy at leaving elected office.

"It's really really been a hard transition. I've been at all my kids' games on time," Duncan said to laughter. "I'm sleeping extremely well. It's a really tough period of time for our family."

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