A Long-Shot Presidential Candidate Is Trying To Take Over CPAC

At the Conservative Political Action Conference, which is all about Trump, Michigan businessman Perry Johnson is just trying to get noticed.
"Perry who?" Perry Johnson is hoping he can go from little-known gubernatorial candidate to president.
"Perry who?" Perry Johnson is hoping he can go from little-known gubernatorial candidate to president.
Associated Press

OXON HILL, Md. — Perry Johnson is having a blast running for president.

And why wouldn’t he be? In less than a year, the Michigan businessman has gone from disqualified gubernatorial candidate to long-shot presidential candidate with a solo speaking slot at the Conservative Political Action Conference alongside Republican Party stars including Sen. Ted Cruz and Reps. Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene.

“I think we should fire Biden!” Johnson said, gesturing animatedly Thursday to a half-empty room from the conference’s main stage in Oxon Hill. “He’s spending too much money, and that’s what’s causing all our inflation.” That’s the crux of Johnson’s pitch: If elected president, he’ll attempt to slash government spending by 2% a year.

It’s not exactly a sexy message for a crowd obsessed with transgender athletes and driving the “wokeness” out of schools, but people at least clapped for Johnson when he talked about pink-slipping Biden. He outlines his plans more specifically in “Two Cents to Save America,” a free book you can order on Johnson’s website.

“I’m laser-focused on stopping inflation and bringing this country to where it should be. It’s the greatest county on earth,” Perry told the CPAC audience.

Perry Johnson has practically zero chance of becoming the next president of the United States. But he’s proof, like Democrat Mike Bloomberg was in 2020 and Reform Party founder Ross Perot in 1992, that if you have enough money to throw at a campaign, you’ll at least have fun trying.

Johnson is rarely mentioned as a declared 2024 presidential candidate alongside Donald Trump, former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley and “anti-woke” author Vivek Ramaswamy, even though he’s spending his own money like a serious candidate. Johnson’s advisers tout the fact that he’s the only Republican presidential hopeful running six-figure TV ads in Iowa (including one with a ... creative rendering of Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to illustrate his critique of out-of-control government spending). And they seem to believe Johnson has a path to victory in the early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

“History is full of upsets,” said Johnson adviser John Yob, citing Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum’s come-from-behind 2012 Iowa caucuses win. (Santorum dropped out of the race two months later and was, of course, a U.S. senator prior to running for president.)

Asked how far he’s prepared to go in this race, Johnson, who at 75 has luminescent white teeth and a full head of shiny copper-colored hair, looked confused. “I’m going to win,” he said.

Johnson was the only 2024 hopeful to rent a booth at CPAC’s expo hall, where volunteers distributed “Perry who?” campaign merch, a nod to the reality that a vast majority of people here do not know Johnson or care that he’s running for president. “Perry who?” was also emblazoned across the luxury motor coach that Johnson’s team had parked outside the convention hall Friday morning. Never mind that few actual candidates showed up to CPAC this year — none, as of Friday, had come with a bus.

Following his turn on the convention stage, Johnson held a packed meet-and-greet where the candidate himself was maybe less of a draw than the free booze and passed hors d’oeuvres. At least one person wandered in, grabbed a drink and a few samosas, and left before Johnson spoke.

“I think we should fire Biden! He’s spending too much money, and that’s what’s causing all our inflation.””

- Perry Johnson at CPAC

The vast majority of Johnson’s happy-hour guests were CPAC attendees from Michigan, where Johnson founded Perry Johnson Registrars Inc., a corporation that helps companies meet international quality assurance standards. Its website features a soft-focus photo of Johnson with blonder hair. “I own 70 companies, and I live the American dream,” Johnson said, describing how he would eat “sub sandwiches” as a broke graduate student with loans. “I did believe I was going to make it,” he said. Johnson said he later worked in quality control in Detroit’s auto industry before launching his own company.

Johnson brought with him former Detroit Police Chief James Craig and former Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.). Craig called Johnson a “good man” and praised him as an empathetic leader.

“This is my first choice,” said Daralyn Armbruster, a retiree who lives near Johnson in Michigan, pointing to her “Make America Great Again” pin. “But I want to hear what he has to say.” Even though Trump’s presidency was rocky, “he still accomplished a lot,” Armbruster said, echoing many CPAC attendees, at an event that seemed to be slightly freer of Trump’s influence this year. “We had a good economy. We were not in conflicts or we were trying to get out of conflicts.” Plus, she said, “I just like him.”

“We’ll see what happens,” said John Nichols, a 56-year-old who praised Johnson’s “common-sense” approach and who won’t vote for Trump. “I’m a conservative. I like what Trump did. I don’t like Trump as a person. I think [Johnson] is probably more refined and friendly.”

Johnson was elated describing his quest to become president. “Nobody ever knows who’s going to win the presidency,” Johnson told HuffPost over the blasting music at the meet-and-greet. “I was convinced that in 2016 Jeb Bush was going to win [the GOP presidential primary]. He had 104 million in his campaign fund. They had all the political people behind him,” he said, adding: “Nobody ever heard of Obama!”

His immediate goal is qualifying for the primary debate stage with Trump — a possible outcome that delights him. Not because he has anything against Trump. Perry Johnson’s campaign for president isn’t about anyone but Perry Johnson.

“It’s the most exciting time in my life,” he said.“I can’t think of anything I would like to do more.”

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