Fresh off their debate performances on Thursday night, nine contenders for the GOP presidential nomination found their way to Atlanta this past weekend to try and burnish their conservative credentials at the annual Red State Gathering.
Not every candidate was invited, and one—Donald Trump—was disinvited, as Red State editor-in-chief Erick Erickson decided who he thought were viable candidates for the nomination and deserved a chance to address a record crowd of 800 for the event on Friday and Saturday.
This determination by Erickson also meant that some candidates not considered to be very conservative—New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush—spoke, while retired neurosurgeon and the only black candidate in the race, Ben Carson, didn’t receive an invitation despite having poll numbers higher than all but three of the invited speakers.
Christie and Bush had the toughest task in trying to convince the audience that they were not as moderate as their records indicated. Both held their own, gathering applause from the attendees with their pro-life, anti-Obama messages. They weren’t invited as much for their viability as candidates, as they were for their friendship with Erickson.
Another Erickson pal, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who announced his 2012 candidacy for president at the 2011 Red State Gathering, received a warm response from the audience. But the general feeling among attendees is that he is even more of a long-shot to win the nomination this time around as compared to 2012.
The same can be said for Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who delivered strong pro-life, pro-business messages, but are struggling, like Perry, to gain much support in the crowded field.
Carly Fiorina, who handily won the undercard debate on Thursday, impressed the Red Statee audience. Many in attendance felt that she needs to be included in the next debate in September.
Far and away the audience favorite was Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who received several standing ovations and jumped off the stage to mix with supporters, shaking hands and taking selfies. Fellow Sen. Marco Rubio (FL) also received an enthusiastic response, but nothing like Cruz did.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker closed out the conference by hammering away at Hillary Clinton, and reminding the audience that he has won three elections for governor—for just two terms—despite being in a deep blue state.
While there is no doubt that the GOP candidates fared well overall, the disinviting of Trump by Erickson overshadowed the event on Saturday. While the attendees were largely supportive of Erickson’s decision, there was certainly not complete agreement. This prompted Erickson to offer anyone who wasn’t happy a full refund of their registration fees. Even without attending Red State, Trump became the major topic on Saturday at both the event and in the media.
Scrambling to fill the speaker slot created by Trump’s absence from the closing event—a tailgate party at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta—all Erickson could come up with were a couple of secretaries of state from Alabama and Georgia, ending Erickson’s final Red State Gathering on a flat note.
The Red State Gathering has been Erickson’s baby for the last seven years. His departure will likely lead to several changes by its new owner, Salem Media Group, but they should tread carefully if they want to build on the success of what has become a “must attend” meeting for many conservatives.