Former Bush speechwriter-turned-columnist David Frum compared his effort to reform the party to lighting up an airstrip in the middle of the jungle and simply waiting for the planes to land. Former congressional candidate Clint Smith, who changed his party affiliation from Republican to Independent to challenge Rep. andy biggs (R-Ariz.), described his state’s Republican Party as a forest of trees killed by an invasive species of beetle that crawls under the bark to poison from within. Panels for the event included «Looking to 2024: Hope and Despair, but Mostly Despair» and «Can the Republican Party Survive?»

If it all felt a bit dark at times, it was a reflection of the mood of some headliners.

“Trump is a cancer that has now metastasized,” former Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) said shortly after finishing the last panel. «So he’s going to kill the party more.»

Approximately six years have passed since the dawn of the Never Trump movement. And, during that time period, it hasn’t been very successful, at least when it comes to reforming the party its members once belonged to. But those within him feel that a new political opportunity could be close at hand with Trump’s vulnerable position in the party. The question they face is whether they can capitalize on it. By Sunday, they had some indication of how he would fare. Larry Hogan, the former governor of Maryland long seen as a centrist alternative to Trump in 2024, announced that he would give up running for president.

Despair once again.

Organizers billed the gathering of 300 people from across the country as a strategy session for those who no longer feel welcome at the typical gathering of conservative activists. But it also provided a snapshot of how far the party has come in such a short time.

The summit itself is only three years old. A decade ago, many of the speakers at this year’s gathering were some of the party’s rising stars and leading thinkers. Adam Kinzinger. Bill Kristol. Juan Kasich. But those who held office have hit political dead ends (Comstock lost notably by 12 points in a Trump-charged suburban riot in 2018) and anti-Trump talking heads found their usual confines less appealing. Of the few current elected officials who spoke at the Principles First Summit, two of them were Democrats: Maryland Gov. Wes Moore and Arizona Secretary of State Adrian Fontes.

The more immediate problem, however, may be that attendees can’t even agree on a way out of their puzzle. Case in point: Charlie Sykes, a Wisconsin political commentator, asked John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, to address criticism that he refused to testify in Trump’s first impeachment trial but later profited by writing a book. developer.

Some of the attendees wanted to reform the Republican Party from within. Others resigned themselves to pushing moderate Democrats over election-denying populists.

“It turns out that once you let the toothpaste out of the tube, so to speak, the demagogy and intolerance and all that, some people like it. It’s hard to get it back.» Christol said. «You can’t just give them a lecture.»

“We need to defeat the Trump Republicans. And if that means being with the Democrats for a while, that’s fine,” she added, suggesting a presidential run from Democrats Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Rep. abigail spanberger from virginia «That’s fine by me.»

The people who gathered at the Conrad have little in common with those who attended Trump’s coronation ceremony downriver at CPAC. The latter broadcast a music video of a song that the January 6 defendants recorded from prison. The first gave Michael Fanone, the former DC police officer who was brutally attacked on January 6, an award (after which he stayed to sign copies of his new book) and introduced Kinzinger, who was one of the two Republicans on the congressional committee investigating the attacks, as their «patron saint.»

Rather MAGA caps and Trumpinator t-shirtsAttendees wore navy blazers with American and Ukrainian flag lapel pins. At least one Lincoln Project hat was seen in the crowd.

There were no photo ops in a replica Oval Office, but attendees were able to visit a table in the lobby to learn about the benefits of ranked-choice voting and buy some cookies from a booth set up by Daisy Girl Scouts. No declared presidential candidate came to woo the room. But Hogan recorded a video message that was played shortly after announced that he was not organizing a run for the White House.

Over the course of some 20 panels and speeches, the tone went from optimistic to wistful and dejected. One group debated whether Trump or Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis would make worse candidates (no consensus was reached). At times, the proceedings had the feel of a group therapy session, especially when it came to reliving the events of January 6, 2021.

“It’s depressing if you talk,” said Alyssa Farah Griffin, a former Trump aide turned View host who moderated that panel. «All of us have received death threats simply for telling the truth.»

“There are members of my family who do not speak to me. In fact, they think I’m an enemy of the state,» said Olivia Troye, a homeland security official who resigned from the office of Vice President Mike Pence in August 2020. «It’s almost like you’re trying to teach someone critical thinking again.» .

In the audience was Caroline Wren, a top Trump fundraiser who helped coordinate the January 6 rally. Her presence seemed, on the surface, like an attempt to deceive the organizers of First Principles, who saw that she registered and were eagerly anticipating her arrival. Wren told POLITICO that she was only there to listen and she seemed surprised that her presence caused suspicion.

For many prominent speakers, the crushing personal cost of opposing Trump and speaking out against January 6 was a common theme.

“I had my co-pilot in the war tell me that I should have stayed as a pilot because I am a terrible politician,” Kinzinger said. «And he was embarrassed that he fought me.»

Michael Wood, who ran in a 2021 special congressional election in Texas on an anti-Trump platform and polled 3.2 percent of the vote, moderated a panel on whether the Republican Party could survive Trumpism. His opening question: «What evidence is there for any kind of optimism?»

“At some point,” Wood later commented, “you have to ask yourself, ‘Am I going to keep going to these rooms that boo me? hate me? Send me mean messages?’”

Comstock, once one of her party’s most touted incumbents and one of its most effective operatives, said she had all but given up hope about the future of the Republican Party. But, she added, glimmers remained: Far-right Republican candidates for governor and secretary of state in Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania fell to Democrats. Give yourself a pat on the back because Kari Lake lost, Tudor Dixon lost, and Josh Shapiro won.

“Everything is a loser there at CPAC,” he added.

The losses of the MAGA Republicans was one of the threads of joy that emerged at the First Principles Summit. In fact, Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump strategist, suggested that the way to restore sanity to the Republican Party would be for it to suffer «sustained electoral defeats.»

But others were not content to see the Republicans hit rock bottom before rebuilding the party. Former Georgia Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan, whom Trump ousted from office, offered a vague formula for reform from within. The Republican Party, he said, needed to focus on politics, empathy and tone.

But even as he laid out a «five-point strategic roadmap» to win the party back, he couldn’t hide his delight at leaving elected office.

“It really has been a difficult transition. I’ve been to all my kids’ games on time,» Duncan said with a laugh. “I am sleeping very well. It is a really difficult period for our family.”