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Principle First summit draws Republicans who don't support frontrunner Trump

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This week, Republican Party leaders from around the country are gathering in Maryland for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC. Conservatives with a different vision of the party will convene in Washington, D.C., starting Friday, and we can call that a bit of counterprogramming. It's the Principle First (ph) summit, and it is expected to draw Republicans who do not support GOP frontrunner Donald Trump. Heath Mayo is the president and founder of Principles First, which puts on the annual summit. And he's with us now to tell us more about it. Good morning.

HEATH MAYO: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So I understand that you used to attend CPAC regularly. That was for a few years - I mean, even starting in college. That's what I think you were telling us. What was it that soured you on the event?

MAYO: Yeah. You know, CPAC used to be a place, I think, where traditional conservatives, you know, libertarians and even some independents would get together and really hash out, I think, what it meant to be a conservative. We'd have those debates about what the movement should represent. And I think over time, you know, the people that they invited - it devolved into this sort of corrupt and crazy circus that was much more focused, I think, on the personalities that were on the stage and the crazy and crazier things that they would say, as opposed to the ideas and the principles that really should define who we are as conservatives.

MARTIN: Would you say that that's emblematic of the current Republican Party on the whole as well?

MAYO: I think so, unfortunately. I think that CPAC has really become this really important representation of all the craziness and the corruption in the Republican Party and then also in the broader conservative ecosystem, that I think it makes a really good counterpoint for the Principles First programming that we're putting on this weekend.

MARTIN: When you say corruption, you mean what?

MAYO: I just mean what you see with using funds to pay off your legal bills. You know, the CPAC ticket, I think, is like 300-something bucks, or it has been. You know, I don't know why they're charging all this money or where it's going. But it's this grift in our politics that we're seeing - people who are using politics as a way to get rich or as a career. I think that's something that we're pushing back against. We're trying to get that out of the conservative movement because we think it has been a big problem.

MARTIN: OK, say more about what you're trying to accomplish, both with Principles First and also just with this get-together.

MAYO: Sure. Yeah. I mean, Principles First is a nationwide effort, I think, to really put those principles back at the center of our politics. We bring together these frustrated, you know, current and former Republicans, maybe even independents, folks that are pulling the lever for Nikki Haley in the primary, or they're upset with even both of the party choices, really, in a show of force to kind of say that there is this growing contingent of voters out there who are going to be really important, maybe not so much in a Republican primary right now, but definitely in a general election. And I think it's important to bring those folks together and talk about what it is that defines us as a voting contingent, what's important to us - supporting Ukraine, being a strong American presence for our allies around the world, free markets, free people. Those things are important to these voters. And if someone wants to win the White House this November, I think they really need to look seriously about what they're telling these voters and how they're convincing them to vote for them.

MARTIN: OK, so before we let you go, you know, obviously, the question of who we vote for, what brings us to our vote is complicated. But I do have to ask, if Trump wins the GOP nomination, would you encourage people to vote for Biden or just sit it out?

MAYO: I think for me, Donald Trump represents an existential threat not just to the Republican Party, but to the constitutional principles that that shape our country. So I personally would be voting for Biden. I think if that were the choice, and I'm encouraging others to just at least get engaged in this election because their voice is going to be very important. And 2024, I think, is one of the most important elections that we'll have.

MARTIN: That is Heath Mayo. He is president and founder of Principles First. That's the conservative group hosting an alternative to the CPAC conference. Heath Mayo, thanks so much for talking with us.

MAYO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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