DENVER — Strolling through the maze of vendors at the Western Conservative Summit— billed as the largest gathering of conservatives outside Washington, D.C.— is a tour de force of right-wing America.
Earnest men and women in red, white and blue make their pitches to passersby from behind booths for the NRA, Reagan Republican clubs, Tea Party groups, christian schools, students for free markets, organizations fighting Common Core, and more.
Sign up at one table for a group’s mailing list— “You can use a fake email address,” a staffer says— and earn yourself a yellow Don’t Tread on Me flag. At other tables you can buy buttons reading “Hot Chicks for Trump” or “Hillary for Prison.” Some vendors clearly know their demographic: A man in an American flag shirt offers free demonstrations for a full-body vibration machine that relieves back pain.
The Centennial Institute think tank, which puts on the annual event at the Denver Convention Center, estimates 4,000 will attend over this July 4 weekend. In the halls of the conference, conversations swirl around the typical conservative critique. The anti-Clinton sentiment is strong. The Nanny State needs to be neutralized. Democrats want to grab our guns.
But in a small room upstairs and down a long hallway from the main ballroom, about 20 summit-goers gathered for a breakout session to address even more pressing questions: how conservatives should handle the candidacy of Donald Trump and whether the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee is, well, even a conservative at all.
Those in the room were there for a workshop titled “A Playbook for Moving the Middle,” moderated by Allen Fuller, a red-bearded Centennial Institute fellow who was the spokesman for Bob Beauprez’s unsuccessful 2014 GOP campaign for governor. Fuller’s presentation was about how conservatives can better pitch themselves in a way that won’t turn off Colorado’s hundreds of thousands of unaffiliated voters in a general election. Before the debate about Donald Trump’s conservative bona fides bubbled up, the group had been discussing how conservatives might best argue their case against banning the sale of ice cream in Boulder’s city parks.
That’s when a man in the crowd spoke up.
It is valuable, he conceded, to understand how to message better as a tactic, “But then how do you handle a person who says, ‘Yeah, but you guys don’t have a conservative candidate’?’”
A woman nearby replied: “Supreme Court justices,” she said. “That’s the bottom line.”
The first man responded back: “I’m all for conservative values,” he said, “but there are some times when you’ve got to not pursue them in favor of the greater good.”
Another woman spoke up: “The argument is we don’t have a conservative candidate, so that’s why they’re not voting. You have no principles if you’re voting for Trump, that’s what they say. You can’t settle … We’ve settled too long.”
Dressed in black slacks and a blue button-up rolled at the wrists, Fuller tried his to reconcile the tensions in the room, which mirror the tensions festering this year between conservatism and Trumpism.
“I feel like it is an opportunity for conservatives to talk about conservative ideas,” he said, adding that it’s good for conservatives to ask questions of Trump and also be consistent with their principles.
“I get in this debate every single day,” he said. “What I care most about is basic conservative ideas, and I think it’s bigger than this one election.”
The implication was clear: Donald Trump is creating a distinct problem for Republicans in Colorado.
That was evident Friday morning when Trump himself spoke to a near half-empty auditorium at the summit and didn’t get the warmest reception from Republicans in a state he snubbed during the primary and later accused of running a “rigged” caucus process that sent all available delegates to Ted Cruz at his expense. Instead of using his speech to bury the hatchet, he picked at the scab, rehashing his criticism of Colorado’s caucus process that cost him more than 30 delegates to the RNC in July.
“Colorado is what taught me a lot about politics. I learned a lot,” Trump told Friday’s crowd of about 2,000. “Because polls came out that I was going to win Colorado … and I was looking forward to it. And then all of a sudden I didn’t get the delegates. And I said, ‘What happened to the vote?’ ”
The next day at the summit, Trump’s performance was still lingering at a table near the front of the main ballroom where Arlene Johnson, a hospice volunteer and Republican from Littleton, sat wearing a pair of dangly red-white-and-blue star earrings. An ardent Cruz supporter, Johnson doesn’t like Donald Trump. She does not think he’s a conservative.
“The things he says, the way he behaves. Do I need to go on?” she said. “And just when I think I can stomach him, he says something that absolutely sends me off the rails again.”
Johnson would have liked to have seen Trump do more in his Friday speech to smooth things over after his post-caucus flip out. “He did nothing to mend fences in Colorado,” she said. “He continued to say it was a rigged system even though he had no organization at the convention to get his delegates.”
Still, Johnson will vote for The Donald in November.
“I think there are a lot of people like me that are voting more against Hillary than for Trump,” she said.
Such ambivalence for Trump was shared a few tables away where Carlene Browning, who was given free tickets to the summit, was checking out the conservative pow-wow.
“I’m not really very politically involved,” she said.
Trump wouldn’t be Browning’s choice for president. His bombastic personality turns her off.
“But currently I don’t feel like I have a choice but him,” she said, chuckling.
Out in the hallway, Torrey Price, a middle-aged Lakewood man was sitting with his mother Lois. Asked if they thought Trump is a conservative, Lois laughed.
“Does he fit the mold of the typical conservative that I think of? Not entirely,” Torrey Price said. “Does he have some overlap? … yes. But he certainly has enough that’s not part of that that causes some faction of the conservative community to be uneasy.”
Price, like others at the summit, said he’ll vote for Trump, but not emphatically.
Although anything could happen at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland next week, Trump is the presumptive nominee. In his Friday speech, he said he knows he will have to win Colorado if he wants to be the next president.
Steve House, chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, says while mending fences might not have been a cornerstone of Trump’s public speech, he did plenty of it later during meetings with Republican powerbrokers and at a private fundraiser Friday afternoon that House also attended.
The might have been awkward for the party chairman who received death threats after all Colorado’s delegates went to Cruz and someone with unauthorized use of the state party’s Twitter account tweeted “We did it. #NeverTrump” right after the delegate count was read.
But the chairman says now everything is cool.
“He did some things at the fundraiser to let people know that we are on the same page, and we are,” House said of Trump. “I don’t want to divulge everything he said [and] some of the stuff we talked about, but the fundamental thing was, ‘I have to win Colorado, I have complete confidence in the chairman of the state, I want you to help him and I’m going to help him, too.’”