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Conservatives pummel establishment at CPAC, while top Republicans take a pass

FILE - Former President Donald Trump, speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) Feb. 26, 2022, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)
FILE - Former President Donald Trump, speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) Feb. 26, 2022, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)
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While some of the biggest names in the Republican Party opted out of this year's Conservative Political Action Conference, conservatives took the opportunity at the gathering to blast the Republican and Democratic establishments.

Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, John Kennedy, R-La., and Rick Scott, R-Fla., were among those who elected to take part in this year's CPAC. Former President Donald Trump is expected to have a prime speaking spot Saturday, but Thursday's event belonged to Cruz and the others.

They pumped up the audience, blasting away at what they called the do-nothing and know-nothing government officials and lawmakers in Washington, D.C.

"Common sense is illegal in Washington, D.C.," Kennedy said in his thick Louisiana accent, adding: "I wonder sometimes how some people in Washington, D.C. made it through the birth canal."

Cruz was more succinct.

"Every day the Schumer Senate is not in session is a day they are not destroying America," the Texas Republican said during one of Thursday's panels, referring to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and the Senate's Democrats.

Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, agreed with his fellow Republican on the panel. Vance, who was elected last, said he was surprised about how little work gets done on Capitol Hill. Scott, for his part, saved his ammunition for the Republican leadership in the Senate.

"In the infamous words of Connor McGregor, I would like to apologize to absolutely nobody," Scott said of his failure to oust Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell from his leadership position.

The Florida Republican then pointed to the crowd, saying the people in Washington. D.C., "don't like me, and they don't like you much either."

The bad blood between the two goes beyond the leadership race, with McConnell once arguing that poor candidate quality hurt the Senate's attempts at recapturing the upper chamber. Scott was responsible for strategy to help elect Republican senators as then-head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Scott also caught flak during the midterms from McConnell and other Republicans for rolling out a 12-point policy agenda that critics said would bring about the end of Social Security and Medicare, two of the most popular social programs in the country.

While Cruz and Scott had their moment at this year's annual gathering, some very notable Republicans are not joining. Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., former Vice President Mike Pence, and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., are just a few taking a pass.

Pence is mulling a run for president next year, and DeSantis is rumored to be doing the same. The Florida governor, who has attended CPAC in the past, is attending a different put on by the anti-tax group Club for Growth instead.

Some who are not attending say the conference is no longer an influential event where Republicans can flush out ideas and reach constituents.

"Ten years ago, [CPAC] was an opportunity to test your messages to conservative leaders and influencers all over the country and to have a big audience get to know you from the podium. And I don't think that's where it is today," one aide to a possible 2024 candidate told ABC News. "Last time I was there, it almost felt more like a college crowd than it did a serious thinker crowd."

Defenders of the conference say nothing has changed.

"Traditionally you've always had your libertarian conservatives, your free market, laissez-faire-type of conservatives, you had your hawks and foreign affair guys, you'd have your Rand Paul-libertarian types. Now you have your MAGA types," former Michigan GOP Chair Saul Anuzis told ABC News.

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There are other potential reasons why Republicans might miss CPAC this year. The conference is headed by Matt Schlapp, who is being accused of fondling a former staffer to Hershel Walker's 2022 Senate bid, according to a report by The Daily Beast. The staffer is also reportedly suing Schlapp.

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