When dozens of big name Republican politicians, pundits and activists gather outside Washington next week for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, there will be at least one very notable absentee: Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, one of the GOP’s leading presidential candidates.
It came out late Tuesday morning that Rubio had decided not to attend the event, which draws thousands of conservatives – many of them either college students or retirees – to Maryland’s National Harbor for three and a half days of speeches and workshops every year.
The American Conservative Union, which sponsors the event, was quick to criticize Rubio, calling the decision a “rookie mistake” in a tweet Tuesday.
The story appears to have been broken by Breitbart News, a conservative website that has been very supportive of current GOP frontrunner Donald Trump.
In a statement sent out to reporters on Tuesday afternoon, the ACU was sharply critical of the Rubio campaign’s decision.
“Today the Rubio campaign informed ACU’s chairman that their candidate is unwilling to make time to meet with activists and answer their questions at CPAC 2016. Sen. Rubio cannot have it both ways: he cannot hope to be the inspirational leader of conservatives and at the same time hide at the very moments when activists who comprise the heart and soul of the movement assemble and organize.”
The release went on to note that conservative icon Ronald Reagan was a regular CPAC attendee and that current and former GOP candidates including Trump, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Scott Walker and Carly Fiorina, would all be making an appearance.
“They honor Reagan’s legacy and they honor the thousands of conservative activists who will spend significant resources to travel to CPAC to learn, be inspired, and eventually vote in our straw poll for the person they want to carry the Reagan torch.”
The ACU’s release doesn’t mention that the winner of the last three CPAC straw polls has been Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who dropped out of the Republican primary earlier this month, and that his father, former Texas congressman Ron Paul, won in 2010 and 2011. The only time in the last six years that a Paul didn’t take the top prize at CPAC was in 2012, when it went to eventual presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
The prominence of the Pauls among CPAC attendees speaks to the youth of the crowd, which over the years has gravitated more to their libertarian message and less to the culture war and national defense platforms many of the participants at CPAC bring to the stage.
This year, CPAC will kick off the day after the Super Tuesday primaries and won’t end until just before an additional nine states gather to choose a candidate. Rubio’s team might reasonably have decided that being on the ground in key primary states was likely to be more valuable to his campaign than taking a detour to the D.C. suburbs to give a speech.
It’s not immediately clear how costly it will be for Rubio to skip the event. Outside the relatively narrow world of hardcore CPAC devotees, it may have no appreciable effect at all. However, count on Trump and Cruz to make a big deal of their opponent’s “snub” of a conservative institution.
UPDATE: On Tuesday afternoon, the Rubio campaign released and email exchange between its staff and ACU chairman Matt Schlapp that shows the dispute in a different light. In the emails, Rubio's people make it plain that their candidate is willing to appear at CPAC, but was not yet able to commit to a specific day and time.
The overall impression the emails give runs counter to the ACU's characterization of Rubio as being "unwilling" to attend the event.