Five takeaways from the House GOP’s annual retreat

Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (D-Calif.) addresses reporters during his weekly on-camera press conference on Friday, March 18, 2022.
Greg Nash
Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (D-Calif.) addresses reporters during his weekly on-camera press conference on Friday, March 18, 2022.

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — House Republicans wrapped up their annual retreat in this coastal Florida resort town on Friday, capping off a three-day event in which they sought to project unity ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.

The retreat was largely free of the divisions and infighting that characterized last year’s meeting. Instead, Republican lawmakers worked to cobble together key parts of their proposed policy agenda in a bid to show voters that they will be ready to govern should they retake the House majority in November.

Here are five takeaways from this year’s House Republican retreat.

Republican leaders keep Trump at arm’s length

After years of strict adherence to former President Trump and his agenda-setting grievances, House Republican leaders used their retreat to plan out a more traditional conservative strategy, one that hinges on issues like government spending, inflation and national security.

Trump himself didn’t attended the retreat, despite living just a few hours south in Palm Beach. Conference leaders rarely mentioned his name in their remarks to reporters, nor did they discuss issues like the 2020 presidential election or voter fraud — issues that have become central to Trump’s political brand.

Instead, House Republicans hammered home the point that they will be prepared to govern when — and if — they recapture the majority in November.

The idea is to present a more policy-focused GOP for the midterms; a party less focused on the intraparty divisions and controversies of the past several years and more concerned with “kitchen table” issues.

But his influence is still clear

While Trump may have taken a back seat, his presence within the party was still felt.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) revealed that more than 100 House Republicans had signed on to host a fundraiser later this month for Rep. Liz Cheney’s (R-Wyo.) Trump-backed primary challenger, Harriet Hageman. Likewise, House GOP leaders have made tackling “woke” culture a key part of their budding policy agenda.

There was also plenty of talk about what they described as a crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, with members repeatedly lamenting the number of people crossing into the U.S. illegally and blaming the Biden administration’s approach to border security for allowing drugs like fentanyl to pass into the country.

The rhetoric underscores just how deeply Trump’s political brand has penetrated the GOP’s rank and file, even as conference leaders look to rebrand — at least somewhat — in the run up to the midterm elections.

GOP looks to recreate 1994 ‘Republican Revolution’

From the get-go, House Republican leaders sought to draw parallels between 2022 and 1994, when the GOP recaptured unified control of Congress for the first time in more than four decades after netting 54 seats in the House and eight in the Senate.

The primary focus of this year’s retreat was to hash out key parts of McCarthy’s “Commitment to America” agenda — a nod to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s (R-Ga.) “Contract with America” that helped guide the GOP’s campaign messaging in 1994.

Deepening the connection to 1994 was Gingrich himself, who addressed Republican lawmakers in a closed-door session at the retreat this week, during which he advised them to focus on policy and government accountability.

McCarthy himself leaned in to the comparisons to the Republican Revolution.

“If you notice, we don’t have many speakers here on purpose because we want the engagement from the members themselves coming up with this,” McCarthy told reporters. “But there’s a few speakers we wanted to make sure we have, and No. 1, I wanted to have Newt.”

“If we’re successful and we win 18 seats, that’s the same as the 1994 revolution,” he added.

House GOP closes ranks after 2021 infighting

Since even before they kicked off their retreat on Wednesday, House Republican leaders sought to portray a unified GOP conference. It was an about-face from last year’s retreat, when fallout from the 2020 elections and the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol exposed lingering divisions among Republicans.

Since then, members like Cheney and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), who voted to impeach Trump in the wake of the Capitol riot, have largely been sidelined within the House Republican Conference. Members have lined up en masse behind Cheney’s primary challenger, while Kinzinger is not seeking reelection this year.

What’s more, House GOP leaders made clear that far-right members like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.), who recently called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a “thug,” did not speak for the conference.

McCarthy, meanwhile, projected confidence in his path to the Speakership should Republicans win control of the House this year, suggesting that he believes he won’t face any serious challenge for the House’s top job.

“If you’re a minority leader the day of the election, you win, and you win the majority, you’re probably going to be the Speaker,” McCarthy told Punchbowl News on Thursday. “They’re not going to change the coach between the playoff and the Super Bowl.”

Questions remain over GOP’s ability to govern

Throughout the retreat, House Republicans hammered home the point that they will be ready to govern if they recapture the majority this year.

But despite that optimism, they’re still facing a few obstacles.

For one, while most members are unified around the message from conference leaders, House Republicans will still have to face potential pushback from a handful of outspoken members, like Greene, who’s already shown a willingness to confront her own party.

At the same time, many Republican members in their first or second terms in the House haven’t yet had the experience of serving in the majority. That could complicate more routine legislative tasks like avoiding government shutdowns. McCarthy acknowledged some of those challenges on Friday.

“You have challenges of certain things that are going to come up,” he told reporters on Friday. “Don’t wait until that problem comes up — how do you pass appropriations bills, what do you do on the debt ceiling?”

Then there’s the issue of working with a Democratic president for at least two years. While members repeatedly said they were optimistic that they could find a way to work with President Biden, they haven’t yet conveyed a clear strategy for doing so.

“We’re going to pass legislation out of the House and send as much as we can to President Biden’s desk, and we hope that he will work with us,” House Republican Conference Chairwoman Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) said.

Tags Adam Kinzinger Donald Trump Elise Stefanik Florida House Republican retreat Joe Biden Kevin McCarthy Lauren Boebert Liz Cheney Madison Cawthorn Marjorie Taylor Greene Newt Gingrich

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