GOP Sen. Rick Scott of Florida faced intense backlash from Democrats and members of his own party for proposing a legislative agenda. House Republicans, however, aren’t worried about opening themselves up to potential attacks as they prepare to unveil an official policy platform.
“The difference between us and Rick Scott: Rick Scott did it by himself. It seems like he did it fast. We’ve been at this for more than a year,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told CNN during a wide-ranging interview at the House GOP’s annual policy retreat. “What’s better is you listen, you look at your pitfalls now, then you put it out to the American public, and if the American public supports it, you’re not gonna be attacked when passing it.”
With gas prices, inflation and crime emerging as some of the most salient issues ahead of the midterm elections, Republicans are not only planning to use them as cudgels against the Democrats this November, they are also offering up their own set of policy prescriptions for those problems in their quest to win back the majority.
McCarthy, a self-professed “ideas guy,” tapped seven task forces last summer to start sketching out a legislative agenda for if Republicans recapture the majority, with the goal of releasing a document before the end of the summer that members can run on this fall. GOP lawmakers gathered here in Florida for their three-day retreat are now on a mission to home in on those policy plans and get them ready for prime time.
“Elections are important, but I think it’s more important than just running against another party to tell the American public what you’ll do,” McCarthy said at the news conference kicking off the retreat.
The narrow focus on a legislative agenda illustrates how Republican leaders are leaning on policy plans to unite their members and win over voters this November, hoping to steer the spotlight away from some of the internal divisions and controversial personalities that have sometimes dominated their conference.
But as Scott knows, showing voters what you stand for can be a lot harder than telling people what you’re against. Not only is it difficult to reach intraparty consensus on thorny issues like immigration and health care, but whatever policy platform is publicly produced could be ripe for attack ads from the other party. That’s why McCarthy’s counterpart across the Capitol, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, opted to not even roll out a party agenda this year.
Still, McCarthy and his top lieutenants believe that mapping out a legislative blueprint that already has broad buy-in from the conference will not only benefit their party come November, but will also help them govern and hit the ground running if they seize back power.
“This is a conference-wide project, where every member is involved and engaged,” said Rep. Richard Hudson of North Carolina, the conference secretary. “And so it’s going to make for a better project, it’s going to make for a better messaging proposal, but it’s also going to help us govern when we take over.”
But Republicans weren’t able to totally avoid sticky questions about their controversial fringe members at the retreat: GOP leaders were asked on Thursday whether recent comments from freshman Rep. Madison Cawthorn calling Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a “thug” were damaging to the GOP message and brand.
“(Russian President Vladimir) Putin is an authoritarian. He is committing genocide. He is a war criminal. The House Republican Conference has been consistent on this,” said Conference Chairwoman Elise Stefanik. “We were very honored to have President Zelensky deliver his remarks to a bipartisan House. And it was quite historic. “
Mapping out policy plans
The GOP’s messaging document, dubbed the “Commitment to America,” is being modeled after the “Contract with America” that helped fuel a House GOP wave in the 1994 midterms. That effort was spearheaded by former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has been advising GOP leaders as they plot their path back to the majority.
Gingrich was the keynote speaker during the dinner reception during night one of the retreat, and he also sat in on a closed-door presentation from GOP leaders on Thursday morning.
“We don’t have many speakers here on purpose, because we want the engagement from the members themselves,” McCarthy said. “But there’s a few speakers who (we) wanted to make sure we have. The number one I wanted to have is Newt.”
The seven task forces that will be taking the lead in crafting the party’s policy platform are Jobs and the Economy; Big Tech Censorship and Data; Future of American Freedoms; Climate and Conservation; American Security; Healthy Futures; and China Accountability. All of the task force chairs are holding presentations throughout the retreat.
“We will be formulating a grand plan, so to speak,” said Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana, the vice conference chairman.
But the House GOP’s party platform won’t be a purely legislative endeavor: it will also highlight the oversight and investigations that Republicans plan to conduct into the Biden administration — a recognition that if Republicans take over, they will still have President Joe Biden in the White House for at least two years, meaning the likelihood of actually legislating is slim.
“We’re doing a whole part in here about accountability and oversight,” McCarthy told CNN, name checking the origins of Covid-19 and the messy Afghanistan withdrawal. “That will be part of the Commitment to America.”
It’s unclear how much the messaging document will focus on the culture wars that tend to animate the GOP base. But Thursday’s dinner will feature Vivek Ramaswamy, author of “Woke, Inc.”
“He not only has a tremendous background as a successful entrepreneur, he has really hit a chord in sharing with the American people his concerns of the dangers of the far left, woke movement and how to return to a culture of American excellence,” Stefanik said.
No early celebrations
While Republicans feel like they have the political winds at their backs – they only need a net gain of five seats to seize back the House – GOP leaders used the retreat to both temper expectations and urge members not to take their foot off the gas pedal.
“The thing that keeps me up at night is overconfidence,” Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, the head of the House GOP’s campaign arm, told CNN. “You gotta keep leading. This thing is a long ways to go. We haven’t won anything yet.”
Emmer said he delivered a similar message during a recent closed-door political briefing with House Republicans. After announcing massive fundraising numbers, he jokingly told members to celebrate and take the day off. Then Emmer, a former hockey coach, quickly followed it up with: “That’s bulls***. Nobody takes the day off. There’s nothing to celebrate until you get across the finish line.”
The National Republican Congressional Committee also led a briefing at the retreat in Florida, where they highlighted a key statistic to show the political terrain facing Republicans this November. Members were warned that in the last election there were 30 Trump-won districts represented by Democrats, but as of right now, there will only be 12 of those seats in the next election, meaning there’s less low-hanging fruit to target.
“The playing field for us to win on Democratic territory is not going to be easy,” McCarthy told CNN.
When asked what he thought are the biggest mistakes Republicans could make between now and November, McCarthy was succinct: “Fighting among themselves, measuring their own drapes, and thinking majorities are given, not earned.”
‘Never been more united’
Despite the pleas not to get complacent, the excitement among Republicans was palpable here at the Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort & Spa, even as rain poured down during the first two days of the retreat.
During one of the closed-door sessions, Rep. Andrew Clyde, a Georgia Republican, played a music video dubbed “Take Back the House” that featured clips of Speaker Nancy Pelosi with a crown photo shopped on her head and McCarthy and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise in flight suits, ready for battle. The video was met with a mix of laughter and applause, according to sources in the room.
Republicans at the retreat also said they feel more unified than ever – especially compared to last year’s retreat, which was dominated by internal GOP leadership drama.
“House Republicans have never been more united,” Stefanik said Thursday morning.
During last year’s gathering, Rep. Liz Cheney publicly broke with McCarthy over the scope of a bipartisan January 6 commission, said lawmakers who objected to the 2020 election should be disqualified from running for president, and didn’t rule out a 2024 bid of her own. Republicans were incensed, and moved quickly to dump the Wyoming Republican and replace her with Stefanik in the weeks that followed.
But even with Cheney kicked out of leadership and hundreds of miles away, she was still a topic of conversation this year.
Just as the policy gathering was kicking off on Wednesday, news broke that McCarthy would be hosting a fundraiser for Cheney’s primary foe, with over 100 House Republicans joining the invite list, according to sources familiar with the event.
McCarthy, in discussing the unity in his ranks, lamented that Cheney at the retreat last year was “going out and doing her own thing. It wasn’t about our policies.”
And some members sitting down for the presentations on Thursday jokingly asked each other: “Where is Cheney?”