New chairman looks to improve RSC’s messaging in minority

The new chairman of the Republican Study Committee (RSC) says he thinks his conservative group can help the House GOP conference regain its edge after losing the midterms and the messaging war to Democrats in 2018.

Rep. Mike JohnsonJames (Mike) Michael JohnsonHouse panel advances bill to expand background checks for gun sales Lawmakers push crackdown on foreign lobbyists House vote fails to quell storm surrounding Steve King MORE (R-La.) is taking over the gavel of the largest conservative caucus in Congress from Rep. Mark WalkerBradley (Mark) Mark WalkerMembers spar over sexual harassment training deadline Colorado state senators plan to introduce bill to let NCAA athletes get paid Republicans offer 'free market alternative' to paid family leave MORE (R-N.C.).

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He was encouraged to run for the post by a number of his colleagues despite having only served one term in the House. The Louisiana Republican, who practiced constitutional law before coming to Congress, campaigned saying he would help the RSC lay out what conservatism means in the Trump era — and then communicate those beliefs clearly to the public.

“I think part of our problem right now is, across the country, even within Republican circles, sometimes around the country in our districts and elsewhere, people are becoming increasingly confused about what the conservative philosophy really is,” he told The Hill in an interview.

Some conservative norms — such as cutting deficits — have been tossed aside during President TrumpDonald John TrumpGrassroots America shows the people support Donald Trump Trump speaks to rebel Libyan general attacking Tripoli Dem lawmaker: Mueller report shows 'substantial body of evidence' on obstruction MORE’s first two years in office, a time when the GOP held majorities in the house and Senate. The GOP tax-cut bill and several spending measures have sent the deficit soaring.

But Johnson argues the GOP hasn’t abandoned its principles, arguing members are just trying to “find their sea legs.”

“You know, we’re in uncharted waters in so many ways,” he said.

“I don’t believe that so many conservatives have lost their way or given up on that philosophy,” he said. “I think it’s just more about people trying to adapt to the new politics and the new dynamics of D.C. And, you know, I don’t think that principles or ideals have been abandoned.”

Johnson, 46 — a youthful-looking, mild-mannered wonk who described himself as a “nerdy constitutional writer” — said he’s hoping the RSC can act as a “stabilizing force so that we keep our true north to speak” in the 116th Congress.

The new RSC leader drafted seven core principles of conservative beliefs as part of his campaign to be the group’s leader. The principles include support for individual liberty, limited government, the rule of law, fiscal responsibility, peace through strength, free markets and human dignity.

He describes it as seven core principles “that help define who we are and where we stand as conservatives in the U.S. House.” And he says the RSC is the best place to preserve and advance those ideals.

Johnson has a tight bond with fellow Louisiana Republican Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseGOP to launch discharge petition on anti-BDS measure This week: Democrats revive net neutrality fight The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Kidney Care Partners — Biden says he's 'not sorry' for past actions MORE, the majority whip. Johnson and Scalise, who previously served as RSC chairman, have known each other for 25 years.

“Mike will do a fantastic job as RSC chairman, and his background has prepared him for the task ahead,” Scalise told The Hill. “I’ve been lucky to count Mike as a friend for years, and I know he will do Louisiana and our conference proud in this new role.”

He also has close relationships with members of the House Freedom Caucus.

Johnson says he wants to be a “bridge builder” between the groups.

The Freedom Caucus, in particular, has often been a thorn in the side of GOP leadership, complicating efforts to pass legislation and irritating other members of the conference.

“Mike is a thoughtful and serious member of Congress who is willing to hear the argues,” Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsThe Hill's Morning Report — Mueller aftermath: What will House Dems do now? Mueller report poses new test for Dems Washington in frenzy over release of Mueller report MORE (R-N.C.) told The Hill. “It has served him well and enabled him to enjoy a good relationship with a very diverse cross-section of members.”

Johnson acknowledged that Republicans have not always had an easy time coming together during their time in the majority, but said “in theory” that should be easier in the minority.

Though the RSC won’t have the same influence as a large part of the minority rather than the majority in the House, Johnson argues the time can be spent on improving the group’s policy development, messaging and outreach.

“It’s supposed to be a policy shop that is supposed to be the repository of ideas and so we’re going to really fine-tune that — get back to the origin on it and produce, effectively, a playbook that we will, I think, be able to run fully when we take the majority back in two years,” he said.

He said his plan to improve the caucus’s effectiveness in the new Congress includes providing resources and suggested messaging strategies to members, increasing the number of press conferences and streamlining its task forces to produce tangible policies and proposals.

He plans to roll out the new initiatives during the first week of January.