About this time last year, then-candidate Donald Trump addressed a two-thirds full ballroom in the Colorado Convention Center and ended up bringing the crowd to its feet with his talk of how weak Hillary Clinton was and how he would make America strong and respected.
This year, as the Western Conservative Summit convenes again in downtown Denver, representatives of the Trump administration are a little thin on the ground.
“We wanted a number of representatives from the Trump administration to come out,” Jeff Hunt, director of the Centennial Institute, told the Denver Post. “We thought this would be a great time to spike the football and celebrate all the things that the Trump administration is doing.”
The president himself and most of his cabinet members declined invitations, but this week, Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke, fresh off closed-door meetings at the ALEC conference, said he would attend. So that’s one, and one of some significance to Colorado as Zinke pushes for more resource exploitation on public lands.
The summit will also feature Jay Sekulow, a well-known attorney on religious liberties issues from a Christian perspective who is also Trump’s outside legal counsel. So that’s two.
The Western Conservative Summit is put on by Colorado Christian University’s Centennial Institute and is described as the largest gathering of conservatives outside of Washington, D.C. It starts Friday afternoon and continues through Sunday.
This year, it comes after the highly influential American Legislative Exchange Council meeting in Denver. Largely funded by the Koch brothers, ALEC brings together legislators and business interests and is responsible for a lot of model legislation that shows up in state capitols, including Colorado’s.
It also comes as Republicans in Washington try to regroup after yet another self-inflicted defeat on health care and as the courts have blocked many aspects of Trump’s agenda that he sought to impose via executive order.
So what will the mood be like inside the Convention Center?
“I don’t expect the official pronouncements and the things people say in interviews to reflect the mood,” said Bob Loevy, professor emeritus of political science at Colorado College and a Republican himself. “I expect the mood would be a fairly down one at this moment. We have Republican majorities in the House and the Senate. We have a Republican president. But none of the items on the conservative agenda of any size are getting accomplished.
“They’ll probably try to put a better face on it,” he added.
This is surprisingly similar to what Ian Silverii, executive director of ProgressNow Colorado, told me, though Loevy brought more lament and less gloating.
Silverii said he expects the mood will be “pretty bad.”
“These guys have no accomplishments to hang their hats on, and it’s July,” he said of Republicans in Washington. “They do not have one thing they can point to.
“There is nothing Democrats can do to stop them. We have no power. And they are unable to achieve their main policy objective, which was to repeal Obamacare and replace it with something better.”
But Silverii said he fully expects conservatives to find a silver lining.
“They’re going to pat themselves on the back about winning the culture wars,” he said. “‘Look at all these elections we won. These liberal snowflakes want to control every aspect of your personal life.’ When it’s the Republicans who want to control women’s bodies, get between gay people and their right to marry, tell people which bathroom to use.”
The culture wars will be on the agenda, with workshops like “War of Worldviews,” “Winning the Secret Battle of Ideas Over America’s Future” and “Policy, Regulation, and Culture – Will Traditional Social Values Survive?”
There are also any number of sessions on how to appeal to millennials, as well as one on the benefits of carbon dioxide and another on moral aspects of fossil fuels. And then there is this intriguing entry: “Moving the Middle: Why moderates aren’t listening to conservatives.”
This is the nut conservative Republicans will have to crack to advance their agenda, Loevy said.
“What needs to happen is for the conservatives to find some formula by which they can get the moderate Republicans to vote with them,” Loevy said. “They won’t want to discuss this problem, but that’s the problem they have to solve.”
The summit is a “must stop” for serious gubernatorial candidates in a state where being seen as the most conservative candidate is a big advantage in the state assembly process to get on the ballot. Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler, Doug Robinson, a former investment banker who is Mitt Romney’s nephew, and Victor Mitchell, a former state legislator and CEO of a real estate lending company, all have speaking slots.
U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner is addressing the summit, as is U.S. Rep. Ken Buck and state Sen. Owen Hill, who is mounting a serious primary challenge to Rep. Doug Lamborn down in Colorado Springs.
Gardner faces increasing pressure from conservatives (and from progressives, too, for that matter) to take a position on health care, but he told the Denver Post his remarks will focus more on “those things that unite as Americans.”
And — challenges of the current moment aside — the summit could still serve as a morale-booster.
“It’s an opportunity to gain publicity for current conservative thinking, to reiterate what current conservative ideas are where government is concerned and it’s a chance — and this is important in politics — to get to know each other and make connections,” Loevy said.
I’ll be at the Western Conservative Summit this weekend. Are there questions you want answered or particular stories you’d like to see? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.