A secretive group that serves as the umbrella operation for leaders and activists within the conservative movement will host two meetings in the coming months, National Journal has learned, the first to vet Republican presidential candidates and the second to discuss coalescing behind one of them.
The Council for National Policy, a shadowy organization of several hundred dues-paying members, typically meets three times a year in various locations around the country. But with the 2016 cycle accelerating, and many conservative leaders intent on rallying behind a single candidate, CNP’s leadership is taking extraordinary measures—scheduling two top-priority meetings outside of Washington—and inviting a large number of nonmembers to both.
The group will host a two-day summit on May 15 and 16 at the Ritz-Carlton in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia. The format will be simple: Candidates will have an hour on stage to address the room and answer questions, followed by 30 minutes of meet-and-greet with guests. Organizers say they’ve begun sending invitations to all of the major Republican candidates—”even Chris Christie,” one said—and several candidates have already committed to the event.
The candidates’ performances in May could have enormous implications. That’s because five months later, CNP will reconvene—in the same city, at the same hotel—but with a different agenda: To begin narrowing its list of candidates with the aim of collectively supporting just one.
This sequence of events will be the manifestation of a year’s worth of private meetings around the country, as first detailed by National Journal last October, in which leaders from the faith and tea-party communities have agreed on the importance of rallying their followers behind a single conservative candidate who might stand a chance of defeating the “establishment” favorite in the GOP primary.
“The reason extraordinary steps are being taken, is that the calendar has been shrunk. The RNC [Republican National Committee] for political as well as financial reasons has tightened the schedule,” said one of CNP’s organizers, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the group’s strict off-the-record rules. “As a consequence, there is a suspicion that [the primary] is going to be decided much earlier. So the reason for this open forum is, we want to see if there are any early signs of folks who won’t be able to keep pace with the stronger dogs in the race.”
Already in the past year, CNP has hosted a handful of conservative favorites for extended vetting sessions. Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee delivered dueling addresses to the group’s September conference in Atlanta; Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, and Carly Fiorina spoke to CNP at its February gathering in California.
CNP is known to represent all three legs of the conservative “stool”—social, fiscal, and national security—but there has always been a special emphasis on the first. CNP is currently led by Tony Perkins, who also serves in a much more visible role as president of the Family Research Council in Washington.
Because of its 501(c)3 status, CNP cannot itself endorse any candidate for office. But its overarching structure allows the group’s members—who lead some of the nation’s most influential conservative organizations, such as the Club for Growth and Citizens United—to work collectively while vetting candidates and discussing a coordinated endorsement from their respective groups. CNP’s membership, which organizers estimate at between 250 and 300, does not solely comprise activist leaders, however. The group has long been home to those lobbyists, donors, think-tankers, and Hill staffers who help fund and execute the movement’s agenda.
CNP participants pay $2,500 for a basic annual membership—much more for an advanced membership—and they must be nominated by a member to gain access to the group in the first place. Members are also allowed to nominate a guest to bring to CNP’s meetings, though the number of nonmembers in attendance is typically low.
These two upcoming meetings will be made all the more atypical, then, by the admittance of a larger number of non-CNP members. Another prominent conservative umbrella group, the Conservative Action Project, will meet at the Ritz in Tyson’s on May 14—just one day before the CNP forum convenes. This is not coincidental: The Conservative Action Project was originally formed by CNP members, and the two organizations overlap a great deal in terms of ideology and leadership. The Conservative Action Project was, until recently, led by former Rep. David McIntosh of Indiana, who left in December to become president of the Club for Growth—a group that’s well represented within CNP.
The Conservative Action Project is not a member organization like CNP; rather, it brings together between 100 and 120 leaders of grassroots groups from around the country. Some of them are not CNP members, yet are all being invited to these two meetings anyway—an acknowledgment that any discussions about a unified endorsement must include those conservatives from outside Washington. CNP leaders know the risks inherent in trying to pick a single candidate to begin with and say they’re enhanced when those coordinating the effort are concentrated in the nation’s capital and doing so behind closed doors.
“The last thing you want is to have it viewed as some elitist group that’s working in closed session, without consulting the grassroots activists and without the general public being able to understand the process,” the CNP organizer said. “It’s counterproductive and goes against the grain of that objective—of being a force to move numbers politically.”
Yet the “objective” itself has become the subject of intensifying debate within the conservative movement. Some leading activists, including those operating in the uppermost levels of CNP, have long doubted the feasibility of coalescing behind a single candidate. They say, with upward of a dozen Republicans running in 2016—at least half of whom have strong appeal to their movement—it will be virtually impossible to convince any significant portion of conservatives to agree on supporting one.
“It’s one thing for individual organizations to move in that direction,” another CNP organizer said of endorsing a candidate. “But if in fact the entire [CNP] would get behind Huckabee, there’s no guarantee that it’s going to force [Rick] Santorum out. So the movement then runs the risk of fracturing.”
“It’s the conservative movement—there’s always disagreement,” said a third CNP organizer, who, like the others, would speak only if granted anonymity. The fear among conservatives, this person said, is that the tension boils over and splits the movement at the very moment it was meant to be unified.
The disagreement, this person said, comes down to a rift between “some conservatives that want to get behind somebody right now and declare a preference and the others who say we have a lot of good conservatives running, and the best way to make sure we’re getting the best conservative to represent us is to let them play against each other for a while.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the date of the Conservative Action Project meeting. It will occur in May, not March.