The American Conservative Union is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit best known for hosting the Conservative Political Action Conference, commonly known as CPAC. The annual event is considered the biggest weekend of the year for the conservative movement and has become a key gathering place for the MAGA movement to develop and spread extreme views on issues including immigration, trans rights, election integrity, voting rights, and Christian nationalism.
The American Conservative Union and its sister foundation are headed by “Trump-allied lobbyist” Matt Schlapp, who is “widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in national conservative politics.”
Schlapp’s wife, Mercedes Schlapp, was the director of strategic communications for former President Donald Trump and worked on his 2020 campaign. The New York Times described the Schlapps as “Washington’s Trump-Era ‘It Couple’” in 2018.
Matt and Mercedes Schlapp’s niece, Laura Schlapp, is a longtime Republican operative and has served as a vice president at the Leonard Leo-linked firm CRC Advisors since July 2021. Laura Schlapp also worked under the Trump administration as the regional media director for Vice President Mike Pence and as a special assistant to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs.
In January 2023, The Daily Beast reported that a staffer for Herschel Walker’s Senate campaign alleged that Matt Schlapp made “sustained and unwanted and unsolicited” sexual contact with him a couple of weeks before the November general election.
Schlapp’s attorney denied the allegations and called The Daily Beast’s reporting an “attack” on Schlapp.
Former congressman Bob Beauprez (R-CO) served as director and treasurer of the ACU until he resigned in May 2023 over concerns about the group misusing its funds for Chair Matt Schlapp’s legal defense following accusations of sexual assault.. The Colorado Independent reported in 2014 that Beauprez had been promoting fringe ideas in recent years and “spent much of his time in private life pushing ultra-conservative causes.”
In his book and in interviews, Beauprez urged the Republican Party to adopt an “extremely conservative reform agenda.” During a 2012 interview, Beauprez entertained the idea of a civil war backlash against then-President Barack Obama, a comment that the Southern Poverty Law Center flagged as anti-government and extremist propaganda. Beauprez has also espoused extremist conspiracy theories about the government implanting microchips in citizens.
Ron Christie, a former staffer to Vice President Dick Cheney, is a board member and secretary of the American Conservative Union. Christie served as a special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2002 to 2004. Prior to that, he was a senior adviser to former Rep. John Kasich (R-OH).
National Rifle Association president Carolyn Meadow is the second vice chair and director of the American Conservative Union. She also serves as a director at the American Conservative Union Foundation.
Meadow has served on the board of the NRA since 2003 and was elected as president of the group in 2019. Shortly after she assumed her leadership role at the NRA, Meadow was criticized for saying that freshman House member Lucy McBath (D-GA), who is an advocate for gun regulation, won in the 2018 election because she is a “minority female.”
Longtime political strategist Charlie Gerow is the vice chair and director of the American Conservative Union. He also sits on the board of the ACU’s foundation. Gerow spent over two decades working in various capacities for former president Ronald Reagan
Gerow has run unsuccessfully for federal and state offices in numerous elections over the years. He most recently lost in the 2022 Republican primary for governor of Pennsylvania. His policy platform included rolling back regulations on natural gas drilling companies, eliminating COVID-19 vaccine mandates, and pushing “heartbeat” legislation that would ban abortions in Pennsylvania around six to eight weeks into pregnancy.
Conservative political operative and former Nevada Senate candidate Adam Laxalt is a board director of the American Conservative Union Foundation. He previously served as the outside legal counsel to Americans for Public Trust and was featured prominently on APT’s website as recently as June 2021. Laxalt, who served as Nevada’s attorney general from 2015 to 2019, was defeated in the 2022 general election for the U.S. Senate race in Nevada. A “close ally” of Trump, Laxalt is credited with “spearhead[ing]” the former president’s failed challenges to the 2020 election results.
ACU board director Terry Schilling is also the president of the American Principles Project, a hardline anti-LGBTQ group that opposes same-sex marriage and trans rights. Schilling’s biography boasts that he has “overseen [APP’s] growth into the premier national organization defending the family in politics.”
Schilling also claims to have helped shape the right-wing’s campaign strategies by pushing “to make defending women’s sports and protecting parental rights in education key Republican issues.” The American Principles Project ran vicious political ads in 2020 and 2022 portraying transgender individuals as a threat to children.
Cleta Mitchell, the conservative legal activist who is best known for helping Donald Trump attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, previously served as the chair of the American Conservative Union Foundation. During her time on the board of the ACUF, Mitchell led the effort to expel the pro-gay rights group GOProud from CPAC.
Mitchell is a senior legal fellow and the board secretary at the Conservative Partnership Institute, where she leads their Election Integrity Network, as well as a chairman and director of the Public Interest Legal Foundation. Both organizations have been involved in spreading election fraud conspiracy theories and attempting to restrict voting rights.
Described by former colleagues as “fringe of the fringe,” Mitchell played a key role in popularizing these conspiracy theories and building support for them within the mainstream conservative movement.
In addition to her work surrounding alleged voter fraud and election fraud and “election integrity,” Mitchell is the longtime head of the Republican National Lawyers Association, which has focused on training its members in election law since the contested 2000 election; and serves on the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
Mitchell also previously worked as counsel to the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Republican Committee, served as a board member of the National Rifle Association, and has ties to the secretive Council for National Policy, FreedomWorks, and the Federalist Society.
The American Conservative Union was founded in December 1964, shortly after the election of Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, as a counterweight to the progressive advocacy group Americans for Democratic Action. Their stated mission was to “consolidate the overall strength of the American conservative movement through unified leadership and action, mold public opinion, and stimulate and direct responsible political action.”
The ACU’s founders included:
At the ACU’s founding meeting, the group came to the conclusion that “the leadership of the ACU will be wholly distinct from that of the John Birch Society.”
The American Conservative Union is best known for hosting the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. The first CPAC was held in 1974 and the group’s longtime former chairman, David Keene, was responsible for turning the conference into an annual event.
The ACU has released an annual scorecard ranking every member of Congress’ voting records based on conservative principles since 1971. They expanded the scorecard to include all state lawmakers in 2015. The ACU calls its scorecard project the “gold standard for elected officials.”
Another one of the ACU’s early projects was reportedly playing a role in creating the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC became an independent nonprofit organization in 1975. Another project the ACU established was the Conservative Victory Fund, “the nation’s longest operating conservative PAC.”
In early 2023, The Daily Beast reported on an allegation that American Conservative Union Chair Matt Schlapp had sexually assaulted a male Republican political staffer who was at the time working for the Herschel Walker Senate campaign. The staffer went on to sue Schlapp for sexual assault shortly after the allegation was reported. American Conservative Union treasurer Bob Beauprez later resigned from the board of the organization following what he described as a misuse of organization funds to provide for Schlapp’s legal defense. In June 2023, watchdog group Accountable.US filed a complaint with the Washington D.C. attorney general against the American Conservative Union, arguing that the organization “violated its fiduciary duties to the Organization by failing to adequately supervise its financial activities and by violating its bylaws” following reports of potential misuse of organization funds for Schlapp’s legal defense.
The Daily Beast reported in October 2021 that the American Conservative Union, which frequently berates Democrats for “reckless spending,” was funneling donations from its supporters to companies owned by the ACU’s top executives. Between 2015 and 2020, the ACU sent nearly $4 million to companies owned by its board directors Charlie Gerow and Kimberly Bellisimo.
A former IRS official noted that the ACU answered “no” to questions on its 990 form about whether the organization had hired any outside company where a director held a position or interest, indicating that the ACU may have omitted or misreported its financial information to the government.
In 2009, The New York Times reported that the American Conservative Union was trying to sell its support in a labor dispute between FedEx and the United Parcel Service.
Executives at ACU claimed that Keene signed the letter in his personal capacity, but FedEx pointed out that the letter supporting UPS “included the ACU logo in the letterhead along with those of six other conservative groups and that Mr. Keene’s signature noted he was president of the American Conservative Union.”
The American Conservative Union is best known for hosting the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, a four-day convention that is “the preeminent national confab for politicians and activists of the right.” Since 1974, the conference has served as a gathering ground and pulpit for party leaders, lawmakers, candidates, activists, and donors across the conservative political spectrum. As noted by The New York Times, “a speaking slot at CPAC is prime real estate for ambitious Republicans.”
CPAC kicks off with an “Activism Boot Camp,” which CNN described as a venue for “teaching would-be candidates and campaign staffers how to win and booting liberals out of office.” The next three days of CPAC consist of keynote speakers, panels, and discussions to “unite the political leaders of the conservative movement with the people who make up the movement.” At the end of the conference, attendees respond to a straw poll that is effectively a “gauge of the Republican base’s mood.”
In recent years, CPAC has increasingly catered to the radical right by welcoming overt white nationalists and providing a platform for the most extreme members of Congress, far-right activists, and foreign authoritarian leaders. The Southern Poverty Law Center has called CPAC “an annual measure of how far the radical right has moved into the mainstream of the conservative right,” serving as a pulpit for extreme anti-immigrant and anti-LGBTQ views. Since Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election, CPAC speakers have shifted to pushing the false narrative about the 2020 election being stolen from Trump.
Following the tradition of previous CPACs, speakers at the 2022 event spent much of their time demonizing immigrants and calling for radical immigration policies. In recent years, conference attendees and speakers have espoused the racist and xenophobic “great replacement theory,” which fear mongers that Democrats are plotting to wipe out the white race in order to win elections with support from minority voters.
CPAC’s headlining speaker in 2022 was former President Donald Trump, who used his time to falsely claim that he won the 2020 election, berate Democrats for supporting climate legislation, and attack the trans community.
Other speakers at CPAC 2022 included:
CPAC has made right-wing victimhood a core component of its operation, particularly in recent years as conservatives have increasingly painted themselves as victims of “cancel culture” when held accountable for heinous actions or hateful speech. The tagline of CPAC’s 2022 conference in Orlando was “Awake Not Woke.” The New York Times reported that the conference was dominated by conservative outrage over “the horrors of cultural and political cancellations — though the speakers offered scant evidence of actual suffering.”
Reps. Jim Banks (R-IN) and Jim Jordan (R-OH) claimed they were “canceled” by Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) when they were removed from the House January 6th Committee investigating the violent attack on the Capitol. Banks also said he would “never, ever apologize for objecting” to Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election. As the Times wrote, despite attempts to portray himself as a victim of unfair attacks by Democrats, Banks “has seen his profile and political standing only increase since the moment he claimed to have been canceled.”
CPAC 2021 was held from February 25 to 28 in Orlando, Florida. Former President Donald Trump, who had left office just one month prior to the event, was the headliner, along with other supporters of the “stop the steal” movement. The Independent said the conference was “primed to be a four-day spree of 2020 election denial.”
In addition to Trump’s keynote address, the 2021 conference featured a seven-part series on “Protecting Elections” from voter fraud and “a seemingly limitless docket of speeches from and panel discussions with champions of the ‘stop the steal’ movement,” including:
In addition to election deniers, CPAC 2021 also welcomed uniformed members of the far-right street gang the Proud Boys as attendees and gave speaking time to a believer of the fringe conspiracy theory, QAnon. Former Georgia congressional candidate Angela Stanton King delivered a speech calling for an investigation into QAnon’s claims about Democrats and celebrities being pedophiles and cannibals. The Daily Beast reported that “the CPAC crowd applauded King’s call for an investigation into the claims made by QAnon believers.”
CPAC 2021 welcomed pro-MAGA vendors who used the conference to profit off of false narratives about the 2020 election being stolen from Donald Trump by selling items such as a “Stop the Steal” board game.
CPAC has consistently hosted far-right commentators and activists and even given some of them speaking slots.
The Southern Poverty Law Center reported on the extensive list of far-right, anti-immigrant CPAC attendees in 2018, including:
Additionally, Peter Brimelow, founder and editor of the VDARE.com blog that serves as “a hub for white nationalists and antisemites who write about the issue of immigration,” spoke on a panel at CPAC in 2012.
The ACU apparently did not take issue with Brimelow’s bigotry, as he attended CPAC again in 2018. Brimelow was interviewed by Slate at the 2018 conference, and when asked to describe his views, he said, “my heart is with civic nationalism, but my head is with racial nationalism.”
CPAC has postured itself as a place where extremist figures and ideologies are not allowed, citing its support for the conservative gay rights group GOProud and banning some far-right figures like the white nationalist Richard Spencer. However, as the Southern Poverty Law Center notes, CPAC’s ostensible disavowal of the alt-right “hasn’t stopped them from piggybacking on the weekend.”
The New York Times reported that during CPAC’s 2022 event in Orlando, the group led by the white nationalist political commentator Nick Fuentes was hosting “an even angrier right-wing gathering” just a few miles away.
CPAC’s first international conference took place in 2017 in Japan and has since held events in South Korea, Mexico, Australia, Israel, Hungary, and Brazil. The international expansion has helped “deepen alliances between a coalition of hard-right political parties, activists, and national leaders” and amplify their extreme anti-immigration and anti-democratic views.
For example, CPAC 2022 in Budapest, Hungary, featured an array of far-right political leaders and conservative operatives from the U.S. and abroad, including:
Hungarian journalist Zsolt Bayer, who once “called Jews ‘stinking excrement’, referred to Roma as ‘animals’ and used racial epithets to describe Black people.”
According to data compiled by DeSmog and the Conservative Transparency Project, frequent donors to the American Conservative Union include the American Action Network, the Mercer Family Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, DonorsTrust, the National Rifle Association Foundation, and the National Christian Charitable Foundation.
In 2021, the American Conservative Union Foundation received $145,000 from the 85 Fund, a 501(c)(3) organization that operates within Leonard Leo’s network of conservative nonprofits aiming to influence the federal judiciary and the American political system more broadly.
Sponsors of CPAC 2021 included groups tied to Donald Trump, including Ace Specialties, Trump’s primary vendor for campaign swag, and Look Ahead America, a nonprofit that was founded by former Trump campaign officials. Several groups that led the efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election were also listed as sponsors of CPAC 2021, including the Public Interest Legal Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, Judicial Watch, and Turning Point USA. The Heritage Foundation’s political arm, Heritage Action for America, also sponsored the event. Conservative media sponsors included Fox Nation, Real America’s Voice, Right Side Broadcasting Network, and The Washington Times.
In 2020, CPAC sponsors included the Republican National Committee, the National Rifle Association, a cryptocurrency company called Liberty, and a Japanese technology company. Each of these groups gave at least $125,000 to put on CPAC 2020. Other donors included the Republican fundraising group WinRed, Charlie Kirk’s Turning Point USA, and the right-wing provocateur group Project Veritas.
ALEC is an influential “corporate “bill mill” comprised of state legislators and corporate stakeholders that draft and disseminate right-wing model legislation. ALEC’s model legislation has been introduced in every state in the country, and nearly a quarter of the country’s state legislators are members of the council.
In July 2021, ALEC and the Honest Elections Project hosted an “exclusive, invitation-only” academy that was meant to train state lawmakers on voter suppression legislation. ALEC and the Honest Elections Project held another training for state lawmakers in November of 2021 on enacting laws that would make voting more difficult — including “direct litigation strategies.”
The American Conservative Union is a member of the State Policy Network, an alliance of think tanks pushing conservative and libertarian policy at the state level connected to the Koch network and other national conservative think tanks.