He also balks at the idea that he’s antigay. Cardenas opposes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and favors visitation rights for same-sex couples, but “if strongly held religious beliefs mean you’re in favor of traditional marriage, then you’re antigay?” he asked. “I, like many Americans, have gay members in my family and people in my workplace with that sexual preference.”
Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist, the only ACU board member who also sits on the GOProud board, said he was disappointed the conflict hadn’t been resolved. “GOProud is a conservative group that’s part of the conservative movement,” he said. “CPAC is a broad tent with big shoulders. Everyone needs to play well together.”
Republican consultant Alex Castellanos, who is scheduled to introduce former Gov. Jeb Bush at CPAC, was one of the prominent Republicans who signed the Supreme Court brief in favor of gay marriage. He declined to directly criticize the exclusion of GOProud, saying “There’s debate going on in the Republican Party about marriage equality and you’re seeing a lot of conservatives struggle their way through and you’re seeing that reflected at CPAC.”
He added, “Al Cardenas is one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met in politics. If I were running a presidential campaign, he’s one of handful people I’d want around the table.”
By most measures, Cardenas’s tenure at ACU has been a huge success. The well-connected fundraiser and lobbyist with dozens of clients in Miami, Tallahassee, and Washington has doubled the organization’s budget from $3 million to $6 million. Registration for the March 14-16 conference, which usually dips after a presidential election, is running even higher than last year, forcing ACU to trade its Washington haunts for a larger hotel in Maryland. In an effort to branch out beyond the Beltway, the group held its first regional conferences last year in Orlando, Chicago, and Denver. ACU is also expanding its longtime ratings of members of Congress to include state lawmakers.
“He’s applied sound business-management principles to running ACU and gotten engaged more with social media and that’s paid off big dividends,” said Republican consultant Van Hipp, an ACU board member. “He’s looking to the future.”
Once again the conference will feature a star-studded cast of possible presidential contenders, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Some CPAC veterans say the exclusion of GOProud and Christie is typical of what has grown into a slick, mega-production that serves more as a Republican cattle call than a conservative colloquy.
“I don’t think CPAC has the insurgent feel it used to have,’’ said Reagan biographer Craig Shirley, who has been to dozens of conferences. “In the old days we all felt like revolutionaries, and there was a joy in that. It felt separate and apart from the Republican Party, and I’m not sure you can say that anymore.”
Cardenas also remembers the old days. When he went to his first presidential convention in 1976, he was so broke he had to borrow gas money to drive home to Miami from Kansas City.
He got into politics as a law student at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. In 1972, just a few years after Bill Buckley and other founders had launched ACU in the aftermath of “Mister Conservative” Barry Goldwater’s defeat, Cardenas attended a mock presidential debate on campus. Nixon’s surrogate didn’t show.
In 1978 Cardenas made his first and only bid for political office, challenging the popular Democratic Rep. Claude Pepper. He lost, but the experience proved fateful. During the campaign he went to a candidate training school and bunked with a political rookie from Texas named George W. Bush. “We were two single guys in our 20s,” recalled Cardenas with a grin.
The relationship with the Bush family eventually led to him serving as chairman of the Florida Republican Party under Jeb Bush. Under Cardenas’s leadership in 2002, the party locked down state government by reelecting Bush to the governorship, expanding its majorities in the state Legislature, and taking all Cabinet seats.
“During his tenure, the GOP reached its apex in Florida,” Bush said in an e-mail to National Journal. “He is smart, principled, and has made a big difference in making the Republican Party the majority party in the Florida. And he is my friend.”