Republicans race for distance from ‘America First Caucus’

Republicans from various factions in the GOP are racing to distance themselves — and the party at large — from a band of hard-line House conservatives whose flirtation with forming a caucus espousing white nationalist views has ignited a firestorm of controversy on Capitol Hill.

GOP leaders, anti-Trump centrists and vulnerable Republicans in battleground districts wasted little time in recent days denouncing the “America First Caucus,” whose stated purpose in a platform document included the defense of America as a nation “strengthened by a common respect for uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions.”

While the Republicans reportedly behind the group — including Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) and Paul Gosar (Ariz.) — appear to have abandoned the project in the face of bipartisan criticism, their very interest has created an enormous headache for Republican leaders seeking to steer the party away from an image of racial insensitivity and appeal to a broader swath of voters, including women and minorities, in the post-Trump era.

The America First Caucus, operational or not, has complicated that unifying message.

“This is a modern, decaf version of the KKK — a group designed to elevate one race and ethnicity by diminishing all others. It should be summarily dismissed and condemned,” former Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), a Cuban American and supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, told The Hill on Monday. 

Asked about the proposed America First agenda, Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.), the chairman of the moderate Republican Governance Group, said in a statement to The Hill: “Our nation was founded upon freedom and equality. As Americans we should always strive to uphold and advance these fundamental values.

“Racism and nativism are antithetical to our core principles and should have no place in our society, let alone the Halls of Congress,” Katko said, adding that he was speaking for himself and not the Governance Group, formerly known as the Tuesday Group.

An America First Caucus “policy platform” began circulating on Capitol Hill late last week, sparking a public outcry and private handwringing from GOP leaders and rank-and-file lawmakers. First reported by Punchbowl News, the seven-page draft document called for an end to mail-in voting, COVID-19 government restrictions and U.S. foreign aid. But it also promoted what it called America’s “uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions” and infrastructure projects that reflect “European architecture.”

It’s unclear if Gosar and Greene — a firebrand first-term conservative who has become one of former President Trump’s most strident defenders on Capitol Hill — are truly scrapping the idea of an America First Caucus. In a series of tweets Saturday, Greene dismissed the policy document as a “staff level draft proposal from an outside group” that she had never approved, while lashing out at the “scum and liars in the media.”

But she added that she and her pro-Trump colleagues would find a way to “drive President Trump’s America First agenda,” adding that “America First policies will save this country for all of us, our children, and ultimately the world.”

The America First document is also making life complicated for many of Greene’s GOP colleagues in the class of 2020, which made history as the most diverse group of first-term GOP lawmakers. They include two Korean Americans from Orange County, Calif., Reps. Young Kim and Michelle Steel; two Black lawmakers, Reps. Burgess Owens of Utah and Byron Donalds of Florida; two Cuban Americans from Miami, Reps. Maria Elvira Salazar and Carlos Gimenez; a Mexican American, Rep. Tony Gonzales of Texas; and the first Republican Native American woman in Congress, Rep. Yvette Herrell of New Mexico.

The America First platform “is complete bullshit and a huge distraction,” said one GOP strategist who works on House campaigns. “It undermines the bigger and more important story here, that there is strong diversity within the Republican Party and this current freshman class is providing us a strong path forward on how to connect with and relate to an increasingly more diverse electorate.”

Most of the first-term GOP lawmakers have not commented yet, but Steel, who ousted Democratic Rep. Harley Rouda, told The Hill that immigrant stories like hers “reflect the future” of the GOP and said “diversity in our party is our strength.”

Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), who also flipped a Democratic-held seat, asked if the America First Caucus platform was “a joke,” adding in a tweet that “America First should mean ALL Americans. Wherever you are from, whatever you believe, as long as you want to be here and be free.”

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (Ill.), one of 11 Republicans who voted with Democrats in February to oust Greene from her congressional committees, went a step further, calling on the House Republican Conference to expel any lawmaker who signs up for the America First Caucus.

“While we can’t prevent someone from calling themselves Republican, we can loudly say they don’t belong to us,” Kinzinger tweeted.

Top GOP leaders also stepped in to condemn the group’s message. Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), the third-ranking House Republican, characterized the GOP as a party of “equal opportunity” and “tolerance” — one that rejects “racism, nativism, and anti-Semitism.”

And House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) volunteered a similar message, framing the GOP as a party that spurns the politics of race and identity.

“The Republican Party is the party of Lincoln & the party of more opportunity for all Americans — not nativist dog whistles,” McCarthy tweeted on Friday.

GOP leaders avoided naming the nascent group, however, as well as the lawmakers behind it. And some Republicans suggested that’s because party leaders also face the awkward political reality that nativist politics — like that embraced by Trump — has been effective in animating the party’s conservative base.

“If the GOP doesn’t stand up and identify these individuals for who they are … there’s real trouble there. But to say the GOP is in trouble, they’re not,” former Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-Va.) told CNN on Monday. “In 2022, I think they’re going to take back the [House] majority on some of this messaging.”

Indeed, Greene has emerged this year as among the most potent fundraisers in the House, pulling in an extraordinary $3.2 million in the first quarter despite being stripped of her committee seats. By contrast, Cheney, the daughter of a former vice president, raised less than half that amount.

Those dynamics have frustrated institutionalist Republicans, who lament the party’s shift toward nativism under Trump and yearn for a return to the traditional GOP platform of small government, free trade and strong defense.

Former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) called the America First Caucus “one of the nuttiest things I’ve ever seen.”

“Republicans need to denounce it,” he said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

House Democrats’ campaign arm isn’t letting leading Republicans off the hook that easy. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) on Monday called on its GOP counterpart to donate $175,000 in campaign cash that Greene pledged to contribute to the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC).

“Minority Leader McCarthy and Rep. Tom Emmer have continued to cling to Marjorie Taylor Greene after the dangerous QAnon conspiracies she peddled egged on the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Now, The NRCC and Washington Republicans are standing by Marjorie Taylor Greene — and her $175,000 in campaign cash — just days after she attempted to form a white supremacist caucus in Congress,” DCCC spokesman Chris Taylor wrote in an email.

“If McCarthy and Emmer have any courage at all, the NRCC would donate the $175,000 Marjorie Taylor Greene funneled into their coffers to an organization that combats white supremacist hate.”

The NRCC did not respond to a request for comment.

Tags Adam Kinzinger America First Caucus Boehner Carlos Curbelo Denver Riggleman Diversity Donald Trump Harley Rouda Joe Cunningham John Boehner John Katko Kevin McCarthy Liz Cheney Marjorie Taylor Greene Nancy Mace Nativism Paul Gosar Tom Emmer white nationalism
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