CPAC attendees fear the event is now just a slush fund for Matt Schlapp’s legal defense
Chairman of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) Matt Schlapp speaks during the annual conference at Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center on March 2, 2023 in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
OXON HILL, Md. — Change is in the air at this year’s CPAC. So are questions, denials, and rumors.

This annual conservative family gala—formally, the Conservative Political Action Conference — doesn’t just feel different than years past, many attendees are questioning, if not outright complaining, about the leaders of this conservative confab who jacked up prices, even as they’re offering fewer amenities.

“There are a lot of mumblings about the possibility that CPAC is in trouble,” Houston resident Fe Bencosme tells Raw Story.

While this is her 5th year attending CPAC — an event she budgets for as often as possible — it’s also her first time skipping the event’s signature Friday evening Ronald Reagan Dinner, which features Arizona’s losing gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake who is treated like a queen in these increasingly fringe-right parts.

“This is the first year I’m not going to the dinner,” Bencosme — dropping to a whisper — says just yards away from the main entrance, “The tickets are too damn expensive. I’m sorry. I think I tapped out at $295 — maybe $300. I was okay paying that, but this year they’re almost $400. It’d be great to see Kari Lake, but I’m not doing it.”

Screengrab of CPAC 2023 G-search.

As for the sticker shock? She’s wondered if CPAC is now being treated as a legal slush fund by its chair, Matt Schlapp, who’s being sued for millions by a male Republican who claim’s CPAC’s leader groped his “junk” while he was working for Herschel Walker’s failed 2022 U.S. Senate bid in Georgia.

“I wondered about that. I wondered about that. I mean, I can’t speak to that,” Bencosme says. “I wouldn’t be surprised. I mean, this last $9 million accusation about him grabbing somebody’s crotch, politics 101— they tell you never be alone. Never be alone. Never be alone.”

Still, Schlapp has accused the media of hyping his credible accuser’s story, so she’s open to alternative theories for this year’s CPAC-flation.

“I don’t know if it’s inflation. I don’t know if it’s because it’s D.C. where things are just a little more expensive, but I’m sorry,” Bencosme says.

Unlike many here, Bencosme isn’t into the back-to-back-to-back-to-back speeches being delivered in the main hall by the nation’s top conservative-to-far-&-fringe-right politicians. In fact, she only stepped inside the expansive ballroom on day one solely to join her conservative family in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance (and she’s one African American who’s never been tempted to kneel), National Anthem, and prayer.

“I’m not here for the speeches. I have not seen one single solitary speech. I’m here for the networking, for the community,” Bencosme says, “but I for damn sure am not going to pay $400 for a speech. I’m just not. I’m done with it.”

She’s far from alone. And it’s not just that the likes of Fox News and, it seems, the NRA, are no longer sponsors. While CPAC didn’t respond to requests for comments, Raw Story talked to more than a dozen attendees with varying degrees of complaints about the new direction CPAC’s turned this year.

While Trump is seemingly more popular than ever here, Schlapp’s approval rating feels way down.

“He’s scamming the people,” says 75-year-old Herndon, Va., resident and CPAC regular David (who asked that his full name be used, because he says he loves his party).

“Ronald Reagan dinner used to be $100, now it’s more than $300. What a rip-off!” the septuagenarian exclaims before lowering his voice and muttering, “and it’s a rubber chicken dinner.”

Rumblings of complaints are hard to avoid here. Long lines, credentialing glitches, and at times (like when Steve Bannon and his entourage, including some five big-bodied bodyguards, part the plebeian sea), impossible to maneuver the main hallway, which also serves as Media Row.

Steve Bannon escorted through CPAC 2023 with his entourage. Photo by Matt Laslo.

In his Friday afternoon address, Donald Trump Jr. went out of his way to claim the conference is overflowing with attendees, even as it so evidently isn’t.

“Different energy this year,” says a female attendee from my midwestern hometown (small world … ) who asked we not use her name, because she’s at the conference playing hooky from her blue-collar sales job. “Less people.”

Even for the one-percenters here, things are different. CPAC did away with its lowest-priced VIP ticket — poor bronze — so the lowest price for VIP entry is now a $3,000 silver ticket. But even silver’s different this year, according to Erik Svane who says this is his 20th year attending.

“They used to come in and visit with us. Like, I remember Ted Cruz coming in and Ben Carson — just saying ‘hello’ for 10 minutes,” Svane recalls. “I haven’t seen anybody this year.”

So what’s his 3k get him?

“You get to go in and have lunch and breakfast,” Svane says, “and you get some good seats.”

For students, all is right in the CPAC universe. For them it’s just $50 a ticket, which is nothing to many, including Connor Bagby, a senior at the University of Michigan where he studies business.

“I was pretty satisfied with that,” Bagby says.

Still, others are trying to figure out where CPAC ends, the Republican Party begins, and how former president Donald Trump fits into it all.

“I don’t appreciate giving my hard-earned money to their causes, so they can go for a spa treatment and everything else, and get the same people reelected, you know, to control the Republican Party. No,” first-time attendee Theresa Menz of Virginia tells Raw Story.

“Is CPAC a part of that?”

“I really can’t say anything about CPAC itself, cause I don’t really understand,” Menz says. “All these people that are living as elitists, they can just jump off a cliff for all I’m concerned, because President Trump lost money being president. It’s disgusting.”

For Menz, and many-to-most other attendees, Trump is the main attraction — and Trump is no Republican, historically or now: He’s forever their disrupter-in-chief.

“He went through hell before he got elected, and he’s been going through hell since. And the Republican Party has let him down. I am done with the Republican Party,” Menz says. “The RINOs [Republicans in Name Only] are alive and well.”

Back to tonight’s Reagan dinner. It’s a CPAC staple, because of the elbow rubbing — not because of the fine dining.

“The meals aren’t that good,” Fe Bencosme — the five-time attendee from Houston — whispers to Raw Story.

While she won’t leave here regretting missing Kari Lake headline the dinner, she will depart with some regret in her heart: She wishes she did like others and booked a room at the Residence Inn by Marriott that’s directly across the street from the pricey Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center.

“Now, a lot of people — and I didn’t think of this, silly me — a lot of people are not staying here at the Gaylord. They’re actually staying at the other hotel. I don’t know what it is, but it’s two steps away and like $200 cheaper,” Bencosme says. “I wish I had thought about that.”