ORLANDO, Fla. - The Conservative Political Action Conference opened Friday with a slew of former President Donald Trump’s allies speaking, including Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, who received a standing ovation after bringing up his objection to the presidential election certification, and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who vowed that Trump will remain a force in the Republican Party.
Trump’s eldest son — Donald Trump Jr. — headlined Friday’s list of high-profile, pro-Trump speakers at the conference, where false claims of election fraud were a major theme. The former president is scheduled to speak Sunday.
Trump Jr. used his remarks to criticize Biden’s moves since taking office on Jan. 20 and blasted some Republicans in the party. At one point, he tagged House GOP Conference Chair Liz Cheney as "Lincoln Project Liz," referring to the anti-Trump Republican group. Cheney was one of the House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump on a charge of inciting the deadly Capitol insurrection.
Hawley, who on Jan. 6 objected to the certification process of the 2020 presidential election, at one point received a boisterous ovation from the crowd after bringing up his vote to do so. Hawley and Cruz led objections in the Senate to President Joe Biden’s victory, despite the widespread recognition that the effort would fail.
That day, thousands marched to the Capitol at Trump’s urging, overwhelmed security and interrupted the proceedings. Five people died, but Biden’s win was certified hours later.
CPAC Chairman Matt Schlapp told the Associated Press the event would feature panels on election integrity and highlight "huge" evidence of illegal voting in states that swung the election in President Joe Biden’s favor.
Since the election, Trump has falsely claimed that widespread voter fraud led to his defeat. But in five dozen court cases around the country after the election, no such evidence was presented, and Trump's then-attorney general, William Barr, said the Justice Department had also found none.
The conference, being held this year in Orlando, marks the first significant gathering of Republicans since the election and its aftermath as the party reckons with the faction that continues to support Trump as its leader and those who want to move beyond the turbulent era of his presidency.
Conference organizers, representing the first camp, did not invite any of the 17 Republican members of Congress who voted to support Trump’s second impeachment or any major Trump critics.
McConnell, a regular at the annual conference, will not be on the program after publicly chastising Trump for inciting last month’s deadly insurrection. McConnell and his allies are worried that Trump will undermine the party’s political future should the former president continue to dominate Republican politics.
Instead, those gathered will hear from 2024 presidential hopefuls looking to bolster their standing in the party still revolving around Trump. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who rose to prominence within the Republican Party on his opposition to COVID-19 lockdowns, kicked off Friday’s ceremonies — calling Florida an "oasis of freedom."
He railed against pandemic lockdown measures enacted across the country while touting Florida as a state that "got it right." More than 30,000 Floridians have died from COVID-19 and nearly 2 million infections have been confirmed in the state since the onset of the outbreak, data from Johns Hopkins University shows.
"While so many governors over the last year have kept locking people down, Florida lifted people up," DeSantis said.
He shifted his focus to voting and cited the moves Florida has made since the presidential election in 2000. He bragged about the removal of local election officials since his tenure began, and said he resisted pressure to expand mail-in voting ahead of last year’s election.
"And the result, on election night, by midnight, the State of Florida had counted, tabulated and put out 11 million votes," DeSantis said.
DeSantis attacked tech companies and promised to combat political censorship, which again came under fire last month when multiple social media companies banned Trump from their platforms.
He wrapped up his presentation by praising the late Rush Limbaugh and reaffirmed his commitment to the wave of Republican politics ushered in by Trump.
"What’s true in Florida is true for conservatives across the nation," DeSantis proclaimed. "We cannot, we will not go back to the days of the failed Republican establishment of yesteryear."
Sen. Ted Cruz, who has been criticized for taking his family to Cancun, Mexico, while millions of Texans shivered in unheated homes, began his remarks Friday by making light of the controversy.
"Orlando is awesome," Cruz proclaimed at the start of his speech. "It’s not as nice as Cancun, but it’s nice."
Cruz engaged in hyperbole as he tried to paint conservatism as the remedy to the Democratic majorities in Congress and the White House. He said "the socialists" had taken control of the White House, though Biden spent decades as a moderate Democrat. He mocked Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for saying she feared for her life amid the violent, deadly riot at the Capitol.
He scoffed at health experts’ recommendations for vaccinated persons to continue wearing masks, saying "this is just dumb."
"Now they're saying everybody can get immunized. We can have herd immunity everywhere," Cruz said, "And we’re going to wear masks for the next 300 years. And by the way, not just one mask — two, three, four. You can't have too many masks."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has long advised people to wear masks because they help prevent people who are infected — whether they know it or not — from spreading the coronavirus. Masks can also protect wearers who are not infected, according to the CDC.
Even after people have received their second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, experts say individuals should continue to wear a mask, at least for now. The vaccines are highly effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19, but it remains unclear how well they block spread of the coronavirus.
Cruz also offered more praise for Limbaugh, who died last week from cancer, and committed to making sure the party keeps its support behind the former president.
"Let me tell you this right now, Donald J. Trump ain’t going anywhere," Cruz said.
Other speakers on Friday included Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, who took aim at the Republican "establishment" trying to take the party "backward."
The GOP "will not win the future by trying to go back to where the Republican Party used to be," Scott said.
"If we do, we will lose the working base that President Trump so animated. We’re going to lose elections across the county and, ultimately, we’re going to lose our nation. We’re not going to let that happen," he added.
This story was reported from Atlanta and Cincinnati.