Correction Appended: Feb. 22, 2010
The annual Conservative Political Action Conference has always had a large youth contingent, but this year's 10,000-person gathering is more than half students. "Road trip!" is a common explanation for what brought them to CPAC. But more and more young attendees who pay just $25 for a three-day pass, vs. $175 for adults are highly articulate conservatives running their school or state Young Republican chapters. "We've seen a huge uptick in membership in the last year," says Zach Howell, national chairman of the College Republicans. Just because they're conservative, though, doesn't mean they don't know how to party.
On Thursday night, Feb. 18, Minnesota governor and potential 2012 presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty held court with young admirers over drinks in the Wardman's atrium. The National Rifle Association (and NRA University) hosted a closed-door reception in the hotel's Virginia room, the low roar of which could easily be heard from the corridor. There was a "Smoke Out the Terrorists" hookah party at Queen's Café in Adams Morgan, where 18-year-olds coughed their way through apple tobacco and lamented Washington's 5-cent tax on plastic bags. Down the street, things got rowdier at the District, where the D.C. chapter of the College Republicans hosted a welcome party. "Liberty is contagious," said an underage drinker you could tell by the giant X's drawn on their hands between shots of Southern Comfort. "Any time there's less government, there's more freedom." And there were rumors of and invitations to after-parties in various hotel rooms from the Washington Hilton to the home base at the Wardman.
But probably the coolest parties that first night at CPAC were secret ones invite-only passes palmed to a select few. The first one was hosted by the Poker Players Alliance and included CPAC's It kids: James O'Keefe (of ACORN pimp fame) and his three cohorts who recently tangled with the law by messing with Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu's phone lines, antitax champion Grover Norquist, conservative media personality Andrew Breitbart and 2004 World Poker champion Greg Raymer. The open bar at Medaterra got quite a workout, with young conservatives ordering everything from beer to shots of redheaded sluts, a crimson concoction involving Jägermeister. (After some debate, no one was game enough to try a flaming redheaded slut.) Breitbart and the rest of the Louisiana Four as they were fondly referred to by many at CPAC then headed to a party hosted by Mike Flynn, editor of the website Big Government, at Morton's steakhouse. Flynn had not only an open bar tab but stacks of fine cigars for guests to chuff on.
This year, in a nod to the younger generation's swelling ranks, CPAC presented a dedicated social arm: XPAC Xtreme Politically Active Conservatives founded by actor Stephen Baldwin, which is hosting a gaming room and live events targeted to the young throughout the three-day conference. Baldwin said Thursday in a speech announcing XPAC that for last year's younger crowd, "there wasn't exactly, demographically, a whole lot that was here at CPAC for them to come together, share their ideas and have a platform and fellowship."
On the other hand, the party wasn't always hopping. The schedule read, "11 p.m. XPAC Rap/Jam Session, live music and special performances by Rappers: Hi-Caliber, Young Cons and many more!" Alas, the reality as a group of young Harvard conservatives found was an empty room with a bunch of Wii video games (XPAC was strictly nonalcoholic). As the gray-haired contingent listened to George Will explore the future of the movement and ate at a "presidential banquet" upstairs at the Marriot Wardman, where the conference was being held, the cool kids had already moved on to Adams Morgan and beyond.
There are plenty of parties left through the weekend. Friday's line-up included another round of drinks with Tim Pawlenty at Gin & Tonic (with a guest appearance by Virginia Governor Bob McDonald); a party at George, a trendy Georgetown bar; a Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) happy hour to celebrate the launch of New Guard magazine at Murphy's Pub in Woodley Park; various receptions with conservative stars such as Ann Coulter and Monica Crowley; an XPAC comedy night; and the 6th annual Reaganpalooza Saturday at the Hawk and Dove bar on Capitol Hill. "This is like our Woodstock," said Jason Mattera, a spokesman for Young America's Foundation, in a speech at CPAC. "Except that our women are beautiful, we speak in complete sentences, and our notion of freedom doesn't consist of snorting cocaine, which is certainly one thing that separates us from Barack Obama."
The original version of this article misidentified the Young Americans Foundation as the host of a "happy hour to celebrate the launch of The New Guard Magazine at Murphy's Pub in Woodley Park." It was in fact hosted by Young Americans for Freedom.