On night one of the Conservative Political Action Conference, as George Will entertained GOP mucketymucks in the Marriott Wardman’s cavernous banquet hall, the next generation of Republicans was downstairs, in the basement, enjoying something more hip. Or, at least, Stephen Baldwin’s idea of hip.
“I know you don’t hear the word gnarly too much in conservative circles, but you’re gonna start hearing it in the future!” the 44-year-old ex-actor told a crowd of about 200 assembled youths. “We’re gonna just keep this kind of loose and fun.” The potbellied Baldwin—brother of Alec and, well, Billy and Danny, too—wore a gold necklace and green striped v-neck under his sports jacket, which was over his jeans and chunky skater shoes. He soon yielded the stage to Mike Huckabee, who in a pre-recorded message, introduced one of the evening’s main attractions, his daughter Sarah. The smell of Chick-fil-A filled the air, as attendees noshed on chicken fingers and meatballs, the sounds of Guitar Hero emanating from behind them.
Welcome to the playpen.
Since Barack Obama took 68 percent of the youth vote in 2008, Republicans have panicked, grasping at Facebook and Twitter to put a fresher face on the party. And so this year, the codgers at the American Conservative Union—led by the 65-year-old David Keene—dreamed up something just for kids: XPAC, a conference within a conference, replete with an exclusive “fun lounge” and a schedule of comedy, movie screenings, and other “extreme” entertainment.
“It’s a brilliant concept,” says James Carroll, a freshman at the College of Charleston. “It’s not really that Democrats [put on events like] this, it’s just that Democrats, by default, have brainwashed a huge sector of the population. You hear on MTV, Vote or Die, what they really mean is vote Democrat or die.”
Problem is, it’s much harder to make the political cool than to make what’s already cool political. As Carroll talked, the night’s “jam session” was beginning—they had moved it up from the originally scheduled time of 11:00 p.m., realizing that no one would come—but most people had already filtered out as the rapper Politik took the stage. “I see y’all leaving over there!” he shouted at back of the room. “I’ve got a message!” One mom sat bobbing her head to his tea-party-centric rhymes (“two-thousand-nine, dangerous times, socialist agenda that they want us to sign!”).
“You can clap if you want to, it always makes me feel better,” Politik told the sparse audience.
By 9:45, it wasn’t the kids hanging out, but the adults. The event’s co-host, Christian radio talk show host Kevin McCullough, played Wii bowling, while Baldwin chowed down on McDonalds. “Whee! We having fun yet?” he said.
The lounge opens again the next morning, this time with a buttery-smelling popcorn cart. The candy bowls are refreshed with Nerds, the Boggle and Uno games strategically placed on luminous, cubical side tables. In the back corner, producers from the Fox News Strategy Room—which has been broadcasting live from XPAC the whole time—are trying to figure out how to incorporate Tiger Woods’s 11:00 a.m. press conference into their interviews with CPAC notables. Baldwin and McCullough are always happy to fill airtime (or do a book signing—McCullough was selling The Kind of Man Every Man Should Be: Taking a Stand for True Masculinity—or promote the “Liberty Ship” cruise they’re headlining in November).
Conservatives are still trying to figure out how to put on events that appeal to youth. But evangelical Christians have been doing it for years—Baldwin runs Breakthrough Ministries, which spreads the Word through extreme sports—and XPAC has a distinctly faith-based flavor. In fact, XPAC was probably the greatest redoubt of cultural conservatism at a conference where fiscally-focused tea partiers and Paultards ran rampant. Summit Ministries is a big sponsor, as is Focus on the Family’s program aimed at “millennials,” called RisingVoice. (“millennials” is the marketing term used by everyone trying to sell something to 20-somethings). So although XPAC avoids overt proselytizing, it skews towards the moral side of conservatism, from a screening of “True U: Does God Exist?” to Fox News host Andrea Tantaros’s impassioned plea to “save the culture” from “reality shows and money grubbers and immoral things.”
Those most serious about politics as a profession, though, weren’t slumming it at XPAC. The College Republicans, with elephant pins on their lapels, struggle to hide their disdain for CPAC’s xtreme experiment. “I came here to see speakers,” said Chandler Harris, the College Republican national secretary. “I didn’t come here to play Wii golf.” The CRs put on intimate events in their own, small lounge upstairs, where congressmen told stories of their college days and dispensed advice for getting jobs on the Hill.
Harris admits that Republicans have a youth problem—“It’s the most uncool, lame thing to be a Republican when you’re 20,” he says. But it’s not clear that the CRs have a better plan than Baldwin and McCullough. I asked how young Republicans can make inroads on their campus, and the answer, according to Harris, is “stuff.”
“A lot has to do with branding,” he says, pointing to the banner behind him with their brand-new logo, also emblazoned on frisbees and keychains.
Rather than attend XPAC’s “Epic Nites,” most College Republicans decamped to bars in Georgetown and Adams Morgan, exclusive parties hosted by Andrew Breitbart and Tim Pawlenty, or Saturday night’s big attraction, at the Hawk ‘n’ Dove: Reaganpalooza. All of that, of course, requires a believable I.D.—which most XPACers just didn’t have. The lounge was an acceptable substitute for Gaby Jusino, a freshman at SUNY Stonybrook. “It’s as hip as you can get without having alcohol,” she sighed, before heading for the video games.
“Good evening XPAC!” yelled Ed Lynch, a congressional candidate from Florida, on Friday night. “Yeah, that’s what I’m talking ‘bout. Yes we can, Mr. President, we are fired up.”
This evening began with political speed dating: Long-shot candidates each got two minutes at the mic to recruit a few young supporters. Michael Steele stopped by to say hello, and was mobbed afterwards for pictures, standing with his frozen smile.
(Steele wasn’t alone in his plodding address. The most common punch line for speakers, from Eric Cantor on down, was an admission of lameness: "C’mon, guys, that was a joke." One of those followed this zinger, from the head of the Young Conservatives Coalition: “I guess you could say youth in America are waking up from an Obama hangover!” Earlier, though he didn’t apologize for it, National Review’s Jonah Goldberg said, “If I’d known there was going to be a podium, I wouldn’t have worn pants!”)
Hormones being hormones, XPAC’s more successful attempts at cool involved beautiful women. Ann Coulter couldn’t make it—she had to be escorted out of the building after being mobbed by crowds at a Young Americans for Freedom event—but there were plenty of younger draws. Tantaros, the Fox News host clad in a white dress and prim heels, had a receiving line after her turn on stage that lasted for hours. And a small hubbub surrounded S.E. Cupp, another author and Fox commentator, who dodged behind a life-sized cutout of Ronald Reagan to whisper angrily about something with a friend before emerging to greet her fans.
“He’s my new boyfriend!” she said of a pre-teen boy who tugged at her arm for a picture. “Did he show you the totally inappropriate photo we just took? Oh, we have to take another one.” Cupp shook out her hair, adjusted her glasses, and draped herself over him for a picture.
But the star of XPAC was Hannah Giles, the 20-year-old who brought down ACORN with the help of Andrew Breitbart. Short, tan, and miniskirted, she lounged on leather couches with her sister Regis, another girl in a tight tube dress, and several guys whom she knew from her college chapter of Young Americans for Freedom. They had settled around two students from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, who were conflicted after the group left.
“Her ego got to her,” said Sam Reynolds. “She had to have a posse. Because of this one little prank, she becomes a political hero.” His friend, Jonathan van Maren, wasn’t too concerned. “Whether or not she’s a hero, she’s a hot chick,” he countered.
Giles was there to accept the first annual XPAC Award for Impact on behalf of her undercover partner, James O’Keefe, who made it to the conference but had to return to New Jersey—where he is confined pending trial for allegedly tampering with a senator's phones*—earlier that day. She waited on Breitbart’s arm while she was introduced by her father, shock jock Doug Giles (“Whew!” he yelled, kicking with his boot. “They rocked the casbah, mama sama!”), and then teetered up to the podium on gravity-defying heels to impart some inspirational words.
“This is absolutely my calling in life,” she said. “I am devoting my entire existence on this planet to finding truth and communicating that with mass audiences and with the entire world, so you guys can see it and fight for it, live it and love it as much as I do.”
After the awards presentation, Giles and her entourage swept out, to be replaced by the Brooklyn-based band behind Autotune the News, a marked contrast in their plaid shirts, track suits, and mullets. (They’ve never done political events before, and wouldn’t divulge their own political sympathies). And then, comedy night, where the truly inappropriate jokes started coming out. “Seventy-two women who’ve never slept with a man?” cracked a comedian. “That doesn’t sound like paradise, does it? That sounds like a meeting of N.O.W.!”
As the lounge emptied, Baldwin and McCullough sat outside strategizing about the future of XPAC, constantly interrupted by hellos from candidates and requests for pictures, which Baldwin never turns down. “This is the part of my existence that people don’t understand,” he tells me as we go up the elevator towards the hotel doors, meaning his celebrity—not large by Hollywood standards, but the closest thing to movie stardom that CPAC’s got. Baldwin recently filed for bankruptcy, and his next career move is to put on a bunch of regional XPACs, with more right-wing comics and motivational patriot talk, while doing his radio show from an XPAC-logoed bus touring around the country.
“What we want at this point is for XPAC to become a movement for conservative youth across the country,” he says, tugging in his pocket for a pack of cigarettes. “It would be a vibration that we are hoping will cause enough of a ripple effect that it will impact 2012.”
I left, and another photo-seeker had already found Baldwin. One, two, three, snap. “Thanks bro!”
Lydia DePillis is a reporter-researcher for The New Republic.
*This was corrected from an earlier version, which incorrectly stated that O'Keefe had to return to "prison."