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Vulnerable GOP Senators Steer Clear of CPAC

Toomey is a Pennsylvania Republican. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

As conservative operatives and activists gather this week for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, a handful of notable GOP senators are absent from the speaking lineup.  

Several vulnerable Senate Republicans seeking re-election in 2016 will skip the confab, which serves as a national stage for politicians and conservative media stars . Three of them addressed the conference in past years.  

Sens. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin  — all of whom are top Democratic targets in 2016 — will not address the conference this year, according to a public CPAC agenda.  Toomey, a former Club for Growth president, addressed the crowd from the main stage in 2013 and 2014. Ayotte gave the conference's keynote address in 2013 and Johnson spoke in 2012.  

Another top target for Democrats, Sen. Mark S. Kirk, has not spoken at the event during his Senate career, according to a search of conference agendas from previous years. Though he is not on CPAC's official schedule, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio is speaking Thursday afternoon on a breakout panel about cybersecurity. Portman serves on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.  

In 2016, these senators face voters in states that have historically picked Democrats on the presidential ticket . It's unlikely that speaking at a partisan event filled with far right conservatives will help their quests for re-election.  

"Every senator in both parties who [is] facing re-election are focused 100 percent on their states, and in communicating first and foremost with their constituents," said Brian J. Walsh, a GOP operative.  

A source close to Toomey said the senator wanted to speak, but he had scheduling conflicts during the proposed times. Ayotte told CQ Roll Call Tuesday she was unsure whether she had been invited, but acknowledged she has spoken in the past. A Johnson spokeswoman did not return a request for comment by deadline.  

"I have no idea if they asked me to speak," Ayotte said. "I've been really busy so I don't think they did. I've had a lot of invitations I couldn't take recently." A number of other GOP senators are speaking and attending the conference, including newly elected Sens. Joni Ernst of Iowa, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Tom Cotton of Arkansas.  

"We created a dozen different committees of policy experts from numerous organizations around the country. These experts met for weeks to develop potential topics and identify possible speakers," said Dan Schneider, the executive director of the American Conservative Union, which sponsors CPAC each year. "Well over 80 percent of the agenda owes to the great work of these committees."  

Organizers did not respond to a follow-up question about whether they had invited Toomey, Ayotte or Johnson to address the crowd again this year.  

But for this cycle's most vulnerable senators, there's not much to gain by addressing national conservatives.  

In the past, senators facing credible GOP primary opponents from the tea party-backed candidates have spoken at CPAC as a means of appealing to the party's base.  

Last year, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promised to promote a conservative agenda if Republicans won control of the Senate. At the time, McConnell faced a primary from Matt Bevin, who had support from groups such as the Senate Conservatives Fund.  

But none of the vulnerable GOP senators up in 2016 currently find themselves with a credible GOP primary opponent, leaving them to focus on the general election. Instead, a partisan CPAC speech might only provide fodder for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's future advertisements.  

But another top Democratic target is slated to speak at the four-day conference. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., will take the stage Friday morning.  

Rubio is also considering a run for president in 2016, and will speak this year along with a number of other Republicans mulling presidential bids. All are hoping to appeal to the conservative base — a key constituency in what is likely to be a crowded primary for the GOP nomination.  

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