Campaign

Parade of 2024 GOP hopefuls court House conservatives

The road to the 2024 GOP presidential nomination appears to have a new stop along the way: an influential group of House conservatives.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) has addressed the Republican Study Committee  (RSC) about the surge of migrants at the border. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) told the conservative group last week they need to get tougher on President Biden and that former President Trump was to blame for losing the White House and Senate.

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will join the RSC this week at a news conference on Iran. And Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, Kristi Noem and Marco Rubio are expected to meet with the group in the coming weeks and months.

Welcome to the 2024 RSC primaries.

While no Republican has launched a formal bid for president yet, a number of high-profile potential 2024 hopefuls eager to unseat Biden are huddling with the 154-member RSC, the largest caucus of Republicans on Capitol Hill. The early face time with rank-and-file conservatives allows these possible candidates to test out their campaign messaging and policies while cultivating relationships that could lead to valuable political endorsements and fundraising connections down the road.

"Many of the leading Republican voices have been reaching out to us," Rep. Chairman Jim Banks (R-Ind.) said in an interview, "because the Republican Study Committee has really been the catalyst toward developing the Republican agenda in this new era and figuring out where our party goes from here, what's our party stand for, what's our agenda."

"We're a policy group, so as we develop an agenda, we've become very attractive to leading Republican voices and 2024 hopefuls who want to come and be a part of it."

That "new era" is one in which Democrats control all the levers of power in Washington and where Trump no longer occupies the White House but is still a major force in the Republican Party. Banks and the RSC have spent the opening months of the new Congress working on how to unite the splintered factions of the party behind a conservative agenda that will propel Republicans back into the majority next year - with help from some of the 2024 hopefuls.

This week, Pompeo, a former House member who served as Trump's secretary of State, will be making his second visit in four months to the RSC. He's been teaming up with the RSC on an Iran proposal and will appear at a Capitol Hill news conference Wednesday with members to unveil it, The Hill has learned.

Another former Trump official, former United Nations ambassador Haley, is slated to speak to the RSC later this spring, as will Rubio, the Florida GOP senator who ran for president against Trump in 2016 and is eyeing another bid in 2024.

Banks said he's hoping Pence, the former vice president who served as RSC chairman when he represented an Indiana district in the House, can attend the group's annual retreat later this year.

"I think everyone's putting their toe in the water," said Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.), who snapped a selfie with Christie at last week's RSC lunch.

"It's a schmooze-fest. They're not up there because they're concerned about Tim Burchett's little girl, Isabel, and how she did at her [horse] race this weekend. ... They're worried about getting to the White House," the Tennessee Republican added.

But while many of these ambitious Republicans are inching toward a 2024 bid - with visits to early primary states and meetings with donors and lawmakers - they're waiting for a signal from Trump about whether he's going to take another shot at the White House. In fact, some RSC members would like nothing better than for the 45th president to address the conservative group.

"We have a lot of leaders in our party, and so it's good for them to come and to be there. But the first invite should be Donald Trump," said Rep. Jason Smith (R-Mo.), who is poised to become the Budget Committee chairman if Republicans win back the House in 2022.

Banks said the RSC would "welcome" a visit by Trump, who lives at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, but the chairman has not tried to secure a meeting.

Meanwhile, during a packed RSC lunch at the Capitol Hill Club, Christie suggested it was time for the party to put Trump in the rearview mirror. The former governor previously had said Trump's actions led to the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, characterizing them as an "impeachable offense." Last week, Christie said Trump had cost Republicans the White House and Senate.

"We didn't lose the White House because the American people disagree with our ideas and support what [Democrats] are trying to do right now. We know why we lost. We know why we lost, and so does President Trump," Christie told RSC members, according to RealClearPolitics.

"I told the president 131 days out, if you don't knock off some of this crazy stuff, your behavior is going to obscure your accomplishments. And if this becomes an election for student council president, we don't win because [Biden] doesn't offend anybody."

Just four months at the helm of the RSC, Banks, a 41-year-old Afghanistan War veteran and Navy reservist, wants the conservative group to pump out pro-Trump policies - without the crazy stuff. A vocal China hawk, Banks worked with Cotton on legislation to combat disinformation campaigns from the Chinese Communist Party.

This month, he led a delegation of eight RSC members to the border, an effort to highlight the "humanitarian crisis" the group says was created by Biden's immigration policies.

A memo Banks recently sent to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has been generating buzz in conservative circles. His message: Trump won over working-class voters and now Republicans need to "permanently become the party of the working class."

"Those were my private thoughts I shared with Leader McCarthy about where I believe our party needs to go to win the majority in 2022 and take back the White House in 2024," Banks said, "and laid out a message and agenda that can attract working class voters and keep Trump voters in the fold." 

Longtime Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said he was impressed by Christie, who urged Republicans to get more aggressive in hammering Biden and the Democrats for "overreaching" with their liberal agenda. Cole said he's a "big fan" of both Pompeo and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who were both members of the RSC when they served in the House.

But Cole said he has no 2024 favorite if Trump decides to pass on another run.

"It's too early to make those decisions," Cole said.

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