If the sizzle of red meat was in the downtown Denver air last weekend, it was by design.
The fifth annual Western Conservative Summit, sponsored by Colorado Christian University’s Centennial Institute, filled three locations with dozens of marquee speakers and thousands of grassroots supporters for a three-day celebration dubbed “America at its Best.”
The gathering has become a must-visit summer event for potential Republican presidential prospects — Texas Gov. Rick Perry made a splashy appearance at the 2011 conference just days before officially jumping into the 2012 race — and this year was no exception.
Speakers included Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Dr. Ben Carson, a darling of the conservative movement and the subject of a “Run, Ben, Run!” draft movement that has raised millions of dollars with the aim of urging the retired neurosurgeon to run for president. Other headline speakers included former U.S. Rep. Allen West of Florida, former U.S. Rep. Marilyn Musgrave of Colorado, Utah Sen. Mike Lee, radio hosts Hugh Hewitt and Dennis Prager, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and his predecessor in the seat, Jim DeMint, who heads the Heritage Foundation.
Carson headlined the opening night’s speeches at the Colorado Convention Center’s Bellco Theater — the summit spilled out of the downtown Hyatt Regency and also included a banquet and receptions at the nearby Grand Hyatt.
“I don’t like the word compromise when it applies to principles,” Carson told the rapt crowd, though he also cautioned against conservatives turning on each other.
“All of us together, we have to look at the big picture,” he said. “We are trying to save the nation right now. So we cannot have this attitude that ‘if they don’t agree with me on this particular issue, I’m out of here.’” He urged movement conservatives to back candidates with whom they agree the vast majority of the time rather than holding out for purity and to oppose “RINOs.”
“We’re gonna have a Tea Party-RINO get-together and we’re gonna take back the country,” he said.
If he runs, Carson can count his visit to the Western Conservative Summit as a milestone. With 22 percent of the vote, Carson won the 2016 presidential straw poll conducted throughout the weekend, coming in ahead of Cruz and Palin, who scored 13 percent and 12 percent, respectively. Rounding out the top 10 finishers were Jindal, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, former New York Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey, West and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who was Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012. Bachmann, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were also on the lengthy ballot.
“This will be the fourth year in a row that we will make national news representing conservatives in the West,” said former state Senate President John Andrews, who directs the sponsoring think tank. He noted that former pizza executive Herman Cain won the Summit’s 2012 straw poll, presaging his period as a front-runner for the 2012 nomination.
Andrews also set the beefy tone for the conference at the Friday night program of speakers, after the Republican Senate candidate and gubernatorial nominee spoke at the Colorado Convention Center’s Bellco Theater.
“As we bring out Colorado heroes like Cory Gardner and Bob Beauprez, you probably noticed that something was missing, something was not said about how they are spending 2014,” Andrews smiled. “I can give you the reason why in two words: Lois Lerner,” he said, invoking the IRS official under fire for scrutinizing right-wing non-profit organizations seeking tax-exempt status. CCU, Andrews explained, has 501(c)3 status and thus “needs to stick to principles and ideas” rather than partisan politics. “Because we don’t have all the candidates represented, we can’t talk about anyone being a candidate,” he said.
After having the tax code researched by the “best tax lawyer in the country,” Andrews said he asked, “‘Are we allowed to talk about sirloin and tofu?’ He said, ‘Yes you are.’” So, in order to avoid running into problems with the IRS, Andrews proposed that Summit attendees “form a mental association between Republican and sirloin, and Democrat and tofu. Every time I’m with Bob Beauprez and Cory Gardner makes me want to eat more sirloin and less tofu.”
Gardner and Beauprez were among the Colorado candidates — all Republicans — who made introductions, also including lieutenant governor nominee Jill Repella and Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, who is running for Gardner’s congressional seat.
The Western Conservative Summit has grown by leaps and bounds since its relatively humble beginnings in a Lone Tree hotel in 2010, former U.S. senator and current president of Colorado Christian University Bill Armstrong noted. “We hoped to get 300, we got 700,” he said. “The next year we got 1,200, and the year after that 1,500.” Attendance rose to 2,000 at last year’s summit, he said before boasting that 3,300 delegates were attending at least part of this year’s bash. In addition, some 90 media outlets were credentialed to cover the events, including five from overseas.
Conservatives across the globe also got an unfiltered glimpse of the goings-on, organizers said. The summit’s Twitter hashtag, #WCS14, was a top-trending topic on the social media platform throughout the weekend — making the top four in the nation twice over the weekend, even besting hashtags generated at the liberal Netroots Nation, which also took place last weekend.
Rich Bratten of the Principles of Liberty Colorado organization on Sunday morning presented awards to the three Colorado legislators in each chamber, all Republicans, who scored best voting for the group’s values. Honored were state Reps. Justin Everett of Littleton, Perry Buck of Windsor and Steve Humphrey of Severance; and state Sens. Vicki Marble of Fort Collins, Randy Baumgardner of Hot Sulphur Springs and Kent Lambert of Colorado Springs.
A candidate who hopes to vie for the award next year — he’s challenging state Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood — is Republican Tony Sanchez, who was grinning a mile wide as he strolled about the exhibit hall on Friday afternoon. Comparing the summit to a “political Comic Con,” he said, “It’s good to be talking about liberty, about limited government. It’s good to get that boost for when we get out on the campaign trail, understand what this is all about.”
The Colorado Eagle Forum’s Jane Schindler said the conference was all about hope. “We’re very encouraged, and the talent that’s here is just inspiring,” she said on Saturday as Bachmann spoke at the Gold Banquet. “If we could use all of the speakers — my wish list would be Ted Cruz for president, Ben Carson for secretary of health and Allen West for secretary of state. We could really turn this country around with the talent that’s here. We don’t need to divide and conquer, it’s unity, work together.”
Colorado Democrats were less enthused.
“Not too long ago, Republicans were taken seriously for their policy ideas,” said state Democratic Party Chairman Rick Palacio in a statement. “However this weekend’s Conservative Summit is further proof that today’s GOP is no longer a big tent party that is interested in real solutions for all Americans, rather they’ve become a circus sideshow featuring carnival barkers like Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz; two of the many headliners who talked about ways to shutdown the government, impeach the President, and called immigrants invaders.”
See the July 25 2014 print edition for full photo coverage.