The American Conservative Union, a pillar of the Republican Party's right wing that's drawing flak for including gays and Muslims in its influential annual conference, is set to elect its first Hispanic chairman on Wednesday.
Al Cardenas, a former Florida Republican Party chairman and a Mitt Romney loyalist, is the only candidate to replace David Keene, the longtime ACU chairman who is stepping down to head the National Rifle Association.
The arrival of Cardenas, a Cuban-American from Miami, coincides with the start of an election cycle in which the fast-growing Hispanic community will be a top target for the Republican Party. And it gives Romney, whose record on health care and social issues has troubled some conservatives, a pipeline to the movement as he pursues his still-undeclared campaign for the GOP presidential nomination.
The ACU board's vote to replace Keene is set for the eve of the Conservative Political Action Conference, the group's annual seen-and-be-seen roundup for Republican conservative activists. Many potential Republican presidential candidates, including Romney, are scheduled to speak at the three-day event. But some GOP figures and groups are boycotting. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and the Family Research Council are among those who are protesting the partcipation of the gay Republicans from the group GOProud. Another source of controversy: A panel on religious liberty sponsored by a Muslim group.
Keene said ACU welcomes all kinds of conservatives: fiscal, social, libertarian, and neo-conservative.
“If someone doesn’t feel comfortable being part of CPAC, that’s their business,’’ Keene said. “What we do is provide a family reunion where they can come or not come, depending on how they get along with their cousins.’’
Cardenas, currently the ACU treasurer, has broad support on the organization's board.
“I think he’s a principled conservative with very good organization skills from his years in Florida,’’ said Alan Gottlieb, a board member and the chairman of the Washington-based Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms. “I think ACU needs to have a more activist bent and needs someone who isn’t always living inside the Beltway.''
Cardenas acknowledged his interest in the chairman's post on Tuesday. "A number of ACU's board members, whose long history with the movement I have admired, have asked me to consider vying for the post if our chairman of 25 years, David Keene, decides to step down at our annual board meeting,’’ Cardenas wrote in an e-mail. “In the event he does, I intend to accept having my name placed in nomination."
One indication of the direction Cardenas will take the ACU: He's scheduled to moderate a panel on Saturday titled: “Changing the Conversation: Winning with Minorities, Women and Independents.’’