This year's leaner, meaner Western Conservative Summit brought together right-leaning luminaries from around the country to Denver this weekend to discuss conservative ideas and sound the alarm over a growing number of threats.
In its 12th year, the two-day summit, sponsored by Colorado Christian University’s Centennial Institute, brought together hundreds of activists, politicians and scholars — joined by people who watched at least some of the proceedings online — to view conservative principles through what organizers called "the unique lens of the American West."
Organized and planned before anyone knew whether pandemic restrictions would still be in place, this year's summit was held at a hotel in downtown Denver across the street from the Colorado Convention Center, where attendees in previous years had filled cavernous exhibit halls.
Instead of the roughly 3,500 avid conservatives who flocked to the event at its height, this year's affair capped attendance at 500, though its reach might have been much greater because the entire program was live-streamed online, with organizers counting tens of thousands of viewers across platforms.
Institute president Jeff Hunt introduced and interviewed the featured speakers on a main stage decked out to look a lot like the set of a late-night talk show.
Clad in Western wear, Hunt played the role of affable TV host, down to maintaining a stream of banter with bandleader Biff Gore and delivering conservative-themed comic monologues to open each day's program. ("The church of Dr. Fauci has one unbreakable commandment — though shalt not read my emails," Hunt quipped on Saturday.)
The summit's theme was "Frontier Freedom," which Hunt said was made clear in the six half-hour documentaries featured during the two days of programming.
Noting that remote viewers were logged in from all 50 states and at least seven foreign countries, Hunt said they "got to see rodeo, they got to see western lands, they got to understand western energy; we went fishing; we went shooting; we went skiing. We got to showcase the beauty and majesty of the Western United States."
Leading conservatives who spoke include anti-abortion leader Lila Rose, former Acting Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Chad Wolf, conservative journalist Andy Ngo and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
Making a return visit to the summit, Santorum injected a contrary note into the discussion, telling conservatives to be careful about embracing the quick fixes of judicial activism and executive orders simply because the procedural end-runs can produce results faster than other methods.
"We have to get serious about protecting our freedom instead of chasing the issue of the moment," he said. "You want frontier freedom? Then make sure the federal government is limited in what they can do to you."
Ngo, who has made a career of exposing what he calls the threat of antifa and other anarchist protest movements, described barely surviving an attack by demonstrators weeks ago in Portland, Oregon, and warned that mainstream media and left-leaning politicians are downplaying the risk.
"They came very close to killing me," said Ngo, displaying slides of bloodied and battered victims of demonstrators in Portland, including himself. "This is what’s happening when you turn a blind eye to left-wing extremism."
Summit attendees had a taste of what he was describing, as several dozen protesters billing themselves as an "Antifa-BLM Summit" gathered on the sidewalks outside the hotel, shouting slogans and making menacing gestures toward the site of the summit. Some brawled with passers-by and got in shouting matches with others in videos posted online.
In years past, the Western Conservative Summit became an essential stop on the summer circuit for Republican presidential hopefuls — including everyone from restauranteur Herman Cain, who won the summit's 2011 presidential straw poll about six months before a brief ride atop the polls for the 2012 GOP nomination, to former President Donald Trump, whose 2016 speech marked a move to solidify support among the party's conservative wing.
This year, however, the only active politicians on stage were Colorado's three Republican members of Congress, who joined Hunt for a half-hour talk about the prospects for conservative policies in Colorado.
Their verdict was optimistic — "I do believe Colorado will go purple and red again in the future," said U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, a former chairman of the state GOP — but their assessment of current affairs was harsh.
Asked what has happened to Colorado — where Republicans have been trounced at the ballot box for two elections running, after a slide at the polls for the last two decades — Buck blamed the state's turn on "too many Californians moving in" but suggested Democrats are close to facing a backlash.
"Don’t tell me where I can worship, and certainly don’t tell me where I can’t worship," he said.
"When Democrats take power, they overreach with their progressive, extreme liberal views," said U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn.
"We just need to make sure we push back. Everywhere we see these things, Whack-a-Mole, every chance we get," he said, adding: "We need to get back to faith. If you’re a person of faith, pray for Colorado. That’s the way forward."
U.S Rep. Lauren Boebert, a Second Amendment advocate serving her first term in Congress, agreed that Colorado was suffering from liberal rule.
"It’s almost like this is a festering breeding ground for bad ideas," she said, adding that she doesn't believe Colorado is truly a blue state.
"They snuck in and took over. I don’t think that all hope is lost. I’ve read the end of the book — we win," she said, provoking laugher from the largely Christian audience. "But we have to be engaged in this."
She said it was important for people of faith to step up and run for office, even though she acknowledged they have jobs and family obligations that are equally important.
"It wasn’t because I have four boys that I couldn’t run for office;" she said. "It’s because I have four boys that I had to run for office."