One of the biggest events in conservative politics is upon us.
The Conservative Political Action Conference, which is organized by the 50-year old American Conservative Union, starts today, and it has become a rite of passage for anyone who wants to be a major player in the grassroots and the establishment.
Among the bevvy of boldfaced names on the agenda, there are a slew of rising stars that could play a role in the Republican Party's efforts to define or re-define itself as the Obama era comes to a close.
On CPAC's big platform, with the national media tuning in, stars are often born.
Here are eight conservative influencers to know at this year's CPAC gathering.
|Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder, Tea Party Patriot|
At five years old, the Tea Party is ready to boldly test its independence from the Republican establishment more than ever before, and at the center of those efforts is Jenny Beth Martin and the Tea Party organization she helped found. Tea Party Patriots is one of the group's most organized networks around the country, and with the help of a SuperPAC that has raised more than $6 million so far, their influence could grow this year. Martin will be a featured speaker and a panelist at this year's CPAC.
|Mark Levin, host, The Mark Levin Show (radio)|
It seems like Republicans everywhere are clamoring to get on Mark Levin's radio show—and make news. Levin has become a go-to stop for GOP-ers in Congress and those who want to be. Like his contemporaries, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, he has a massive listening audience of conservatives, but he notably leaves the vitriol at the wayside. At this year's CPAC he'll be presented with the "Andrew Breitbart Defender of the First Amendment Award" in honor of the late conservative media icon. In 2014, Levin could well become an even bigger platform for congressional and presidential hopefuls.
|Eric Metaxas, author, biographer|
What's a historian, biographer and children's television writer doing at CPAC? Well, meet Eric Metaxas, who could very well be the new (new) face of the Christian right. As the keynote speaker at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2012, he delivered a humorous but impassioned defense of faith that caused conservatives, and even President Obama to take notice. President George W. Bush read his book on Bonhoeffer, a German pastor who plotted to assassinate Adolf Hilter. Metaxas, a Yale graduate and a writer for the Christian children's cartoon featuring talking vegetables, VeggieTales, is a photogenic, witty ambassador for faith in public life.
|Jordan Sekulow, executive director, American Center for Law and Justice|
Gather more than a handful of conservatives in the same room and the IRS is almost certain to come up. Waging many of the battles against the IRS's admitted targeting of conservative groups is Sekulow's American Center for Law and Justice. The ACLJ has filed suit against the IRS on behalf of dozens of Tea Party groups over the agency's targeting of conservative groups leading up to the 2012 campaign. And though the issue has faded from national headlines, conservatives intend to wage a fierce battle against the IRS and what they say is an attempt to muzzle their first amendment rights. The IRS has raised the ACLJ's profile, but the organization, led by Sekulow, is likely to take center stage in other legal battles on behalf of conservative causes.
|Dr. Ben Carson, Neurosurgeon|
The John's Hopkins University neurosurgeon has long been considered one of America's preeminent medical minds. But in recent years, he has become a favorite of the conservative grassroots for his outspoken opposition to President Obama's policies—and specifically the Affordable Care Act. His time on the national stage was solidified in 2013 during the National Prayer Breakfast when he strenuously argued against "moral decay and fiscal irresponsibility" in America--all with the president sitting just feet away. Since then, Carson has become a Tea Party hero, and no stranger to controversy—recently comparing Obamacare to slavery. And some conservatives are seeking to draft him for a presidential run. The National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee says it has raised nearly $3 million on his behalf.
|Justin LoFranco, creative director, Republican National Committee|
Justin LoFranco is a former congressional staffer who has made a name for himself by teaching lawmakers how to connect with digital audiences, which is something like teaching an old dog new tricks. His skill has taken him from Congressional offices to the RNC as video director during the 2012 campaign, and back again, now as the RNC's creative director. At a time when campaigns, political parties and politicians are trying to compete for eyeballs and an increasingly restless Internet audience, LoFranco knows the territory. At this year's CPAC he'll be leading a panel on how to build a "socially engaged audience."
|Steve Bannon, Breitbart News Executive Chairman|
Following the death of conservative media publisher Andrew Breitbart in 2012, Steve Bannon took the helm of his eponymous organization with a mandate to keep it thriving without the outsized personality of its founder. More than two years later, the Breitbart media organization remains one of the primary sources of news in the conservative media world online. As the conservative media world refines its counter-programing to the "mainstream media," the Breitbart News Network is likely to continue to feature prominently.
|T.W. Shannon, U.S. Senate candidate, Oklahoma House member|
Former Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives T.W. Shannon is widely viewed as one of the fastest-rising stars in the Republican Party. He was the state's first African American House Speaker and is also an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation. Shannon was named one of CPAC's 10 under 40 during the 2013 conference, and this year will be participating in a panel and will hold court with premium ticket holders at a meet and greet event during the conference. Shannon launched his next big political move by jumping in the race to succeed Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, who will end his term early, citing health reasons.