Only a fool leaves CPAC before 5 p.m. "CPAC doesn't even start 'til 6," a friend from a libertarian think tank told me on Thursday, and my friend was right. Dennis Lennox, a Michigan Republican activist and fan of bespoke suits, crashed the press area of the ballroom to hand out invitations to his party, "By Invitation Only."
"Do you want a picture?" he asked. "I bet there's no one else at CPAC wearing tartan pants." He seemed to be right, so I took a picture.
The party brought a few Republican members of Congress together with emcee/former Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich, and dozens of young conservatives in evening wear. (I was the only schlub wearing jeans.) The price of admission was listening to a meandering speech by the new congressman from North Dakota; the reward, possibly, was a successful raffle ticket for free tailoring from Benson & Clegg.
By Invitation Only grew out of a schism between a few young conservative strategists who'd held CPAC parties in the past. Lennox had his party; Ali Akbar had his National Bloggers Club and its annual Blog Bash, co-sponsored this year by the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Rick Santorum's PAC. For weeks there had been rumors that left-wing activists would terrorize the event, literally. Four security guards were hired to protect the venue. They ended up protecting it from a confused guy with a digital camera, who was assiduously recorded by wary bloggers, until they got bored and got back to partying. Sen. Ted Cruz gave a 3-minute tribute to bloggers for taking down Dan Rather and creating a world in which Walter Cronkite no longer determined the headlines.
It went on for hours, dueling piano players bringing the crowd into sing-along renditions of "Don't Stop Believing" and "Poker Face." Those who survived were ready for a gauntlet of Friday parties, sponsored by political PACs who'd occupied ballrooms and given them themes. First up: The Zombie Party.
Inside, make-up artists traveled from table to table, offering quick horror-show make-overs as people enjoyed their hotel-priced beverages, hummus, and charcuterie. The direct competition to this came from Tea Party Patriots' bash, themed as a tribute to "The Hunger Games," with impressive attention to detail. Upon entry, hand-stamps assigned every attendee to a "district." That district would pick a champion for a karoake contest. The final round, between the remaining two champions? That would be the "death panel." Tea Party Patriots' national leadership prowled the party in full movie regalia. Below, dressed as Effie Trinket, is the woman generally credited with putting the first modern "Tea Party" together, in Seattle: Keli Carender.
It was impressive, but the zombie party gave revelers "digital business cards," little widgets that allowed them to scan and share their vital data. These were given the resolutely un-focus grouped name "mingle sticks."
All of this took place in the voluminous Gaylord conference center. A smaller group, mostly media, were invited to an off-campus party up the road in D.C., put on by Breitbart.com and Newsmax.com. The walk-up was decorated by Mexican flags; to the right, as soon as one entered "the embassy," was a full, blaring mariachi band.
Close to midnight, the original party crew started to file out and the people capping off their nights filed in. The trusty bartender was replaced by Grover Norquist, president of Americans for tax reform.
Disclosure: I picked the rum.