Hundreds of conservatives gathered in Washington, D.C. over the weekend, but not for the Trumpalooza clown-car event known as the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC. Instead, at the Principles First Summit the message was clear: Donald Trump poses a threat to our democracy, and if he is the Republican nominee many of them will vote for President Joe Biden despite disagreeing with him on many issues.
Speakers at the event made clear that they intend to take their anti-Trump message to the Republican primary voters who have chosen a candidate other than Trump, in particular those supporting former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. Republican political consultant Mike Madrid, a co-founder of the Lincoln Project, noted in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, that it’s worth targeting these voters, writing “GOP defections will be the single largest factor in the November outcome.”
Now this all may be a pipe dream, but these voters may be more receptive to anti-Trump messaging coming from conservatives rather than from liberals. And if even a small percentage of GOP voters flip to Biden in key swing states, it could make a difference in a close election. Principles First may just help with that.
Principles First was founded in 2019 as a right and center-right movement that says it’s “concerned about the health of democracy.” It was meant to serve as an alternative to CPAC, which has become increasingly dominated by Trump’s MAGA cult.
Last weekend’s fourth Principles First conference drew about 700 participants—more than double the number who attended last year’s event, its founder Heath Mayo said. Meanwhile, at the larger CPAC event, the crowds were sparser than in previous years.
And the MAGA cult message was loud and clear at CPAC where the lobby display included a “J6 Insurrection” pinball machine. Right-wing conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec told a panel hosted by Steve Bannon:
“Welcome to the end of democracy, We’re here to overthrow it completely. We didn’t get all the way there on Jan. 6, but we will endeavor to get rid of it and replace it with this right here,” Posobiec said.
Posobiec then held up his fist, and added: "All glory is not to government. All glory to God."
In his opening address to the Principles First Summit, Mayo, who had already told NPR that he would vote for Biden over Trump, had a distinctly different message about the need to put “principles first rather than party or personalities.”
”We don’t have golden statues of politicians rolling around. Our speakers will celebrate the spirit of 1776 instead of Jan. 6. And the people in this room today, we know how to spot and condemn tyranny when we see it rather than to praise it.”
And the star of the event was Cassidy Hutchinson, the former White House staffer who provided pivotal testimony to the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Participants lined up in the lobby to receive signed copies of her book “Enough.”
In a touching moment, Hutchinson was presented the Principles First Profiles in Courage award from last year’s recipient, former Capitol Police officer Harry Dunn who held back the mob on Jan. 6 and is now running for Congress as a Democrat.
Hutchinson, also took part in a panel with two other anti-Trump former White House staffers, Sarah Matthews and Alyssa Farah Griffin (now co-host of “The View”). She described the “horrible attacks” that ruined her life and those of others who testified to the select committee such as Georgia election workers Shaye Moss and Ruby Freeman.
“We need to push towards normalcy,” Hutchinson said. “We start in this next election. We start by doing everything we possibly can to make sure that Donald Trump never gets near the Oval Office again, and to make sure that every member of Congress that has enabled Donald Trump’s agenda is also held accountable and voted out of office.”
She emphasized the need to mobilize and educate voters, especially in the handful of swing states, about the choice in the upcoming election. “If the ticket is a binary choice between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, people need to understand on a very basic, very fundamental level that there’ll be one candidate on that ballot that will support our democracy so we can continue to thrive. And it’s not Donald Trump.”
And that message was underscored by former Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, one of the two Republicans who served on the House Jan. 6 select committee. Kinzinger encouraged Nikki Haley to remain in the race, but then added: “If it’s Trump against Biden, I’m going to vote for Biden because to me, and this is what I think is important, I can disagree with a lot of stuff but democracy is truly at stake here. “
Sarah Longwell, a founder of Republican Voters Against Trump, totally dismissed any notion of supporting a third-party No Labels ticket, saying it would absolutely help elect Trump.
Ukraine and its fight against Russia was also discussed by several speakers, who declared their unwavering support. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, whose short-lived presidential campaign gained no traction, warned that Trump is going to make the GOP “a pro-Putin party.” He added: “I’m sorry. That’s not what Ronald Reagan would do.”
Fiona Hill, the former National Security Council senior director for European and Russian affairs who testified in the first House Trump impeachment inquiry, said: “We are really seeing Putin eroding the idea of the United States as well. … For Putin, this is a pivotal turning point. If the enterprise in Ukraine fails … if the United States is seen to not be stepping up then we’ve really basically lost our leadership position.”
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger, who faced pressure from Trump and threats from MAGA supporters after certifying Biden’s victory in 2020, said he would follow the law and the Constitution and make sure his state has “fair, honest and accurate elections” in 2024.
Former federal appeals court Judge J. Michael Luttig said Donald Trump must be held accountable for his actions relating to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
And there was one other reason why speakers at the conference emphasized that Trump must lose the 2024 election: only a big loss could enable a sane center-right party to emerge out of the MAGA ashes. Conservative commentator Charlie Sykes said the country “needs two rational political parties.” And Jonah Goldberg, founder of the online conservative website The Dispatch, said that it’s necessary to build on the minority faction within the GOP that is “sane” and voting against Trump to reclaim the party.
Good luck with that. But there was one hopeful sign in the lobby of the Principles First Summit—and something that you wouldn’t find at CPAC.