House Republicans, bullish on midterms, plot return to power

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — The House majority seemingly within their grasp, Republican lawmakers huddling at a retreat in Florida this week turned to the architect of the “Republican Revolution” nearly three decades ago — former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — for ideas on starting their own political revolt come November.

Needing only a handful of seats to recapture the House, Republicans are exceedingly confident of their chances. With incumbent Democrats retiring in droves, and President Joe Biden’s poll numbers slumping amid deep voter pessimism about the economy, many in the party — including their leader Kevin McCarthy — are treating the Republican victory as a fait accompli.

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They see Gingrich, the man who swept away four decades of Democratic House rule with the “Contract With America” in 1994, as a model. He spoke to House Republicans Wednesday night as they gathered in Jacksonville, Fla., to prepare for the campaigning ahead. His message was simple: offer a contrast to what he called the failing Democratic agenda and then deliver to the American people.

“He saw the chance in Republicans when no one thought we could win,” McCarthy said on Wednesday. “If we’re successful, in which we win 18 seats, that’s the same number of Republicans after the 1994 election.”

He added, “But it’s different than just recruiting candidates and raising money. It’s what you do with it. You make a commitment to the American public.”

But while Republicans have numbers on their side in the election, what they would do with a majority is very much a work in progress. And it remained unclear at the three-day retreat what, if any, lessons Republicans have learned from the tumultuous eras of Gingrich, Dennis Hastert, John Boehner and Paul Ryan — the past four Republican House speakers, all of whom found it is easier to win power in the House than to control it.

Much of Gingrich’s “contract” never became law as the triumph of the ’94 elections gave way to intra-party strife, a damaging budget standoff that ended in a government shutdown and an ethics tangle that contributed to Gingrich leaving office. Boehner, like Gingrich, relinquished the gavel and resigned amid divisions between the party’s ideological factions.

McCarthy, 57, is charting his own delicate course as he works to become speaker in what would be a divided Washington, with President Joe Biden still in the White House. Last summer McCarthy tasked several groups of Republican lawmakers with drafting proposals on the party’s core legislative priorities, including lowering costs in the economy, securing the Southern border and countering China, in hopes of making a fast start in 2023.

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But creating a governing majority is a daunting challenge. Hard-right members of the conference are ascendant, creating headaches with their inflammatory actions and statements. Many in the party are likely to welcome new rounds of brinkmanship over government spending and the debt. And some Republicans are already agitating for partisan investigations of figures like Dr. Anthony Fauci and President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, that could easily overshadow their legislation.

Meanwhile, former President Donald Trump continues to hold enormous sway over the GOP despite his attempts to overturn the 2020 election and his lies about election fraud that fueled the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. McCarthy has kept close to Trump, jetting to his private club to secure his support earlier this year, as the party relies on his brand and his fundraising prowess to motivate Republican voters.

North Carolina Rep. Patrick McHenry, who is the top Republican of the Financial Services Committee and close to GOP leadership, said what comes after the election is what will determine whether a new GOP majority endures.

“I think right now, not being the Democrats is a sufficient answer to win the election,” Rep. Patrick McHenry, the top Republican of the Financial Services Committee, told The Associated Press in an interview. “But that doesn’t make us worth a damn as a governing majority. That doesn’t electrify our electorate. That doesn’t bring over folks that are in the middle.”

Rep. James Comer of Kentucky, in line to take over the powerful House Oversight committee, said the way for the conference to move forward is to focus on what they can realistically deliver to the American people.

“We’ve got plenty of things that I think the base and the American people will appreciate that we can do,” he said. “So let’s commit to things that are achievable, not just talking points that will get you on Fox News for four and a half minutes.”

Members spent the damp and rainy days of the retreat reiterating that while there are loud voices on the fringe of party lines, including a few who have called for Biden’s impeachment, the majority are united behind McCarthy’s vision.

“I call it a 50-year election,” McCarthy told reporters. “It won’t come around like this in the House” for a long time.

Gingrich gave McCarthy a vote of confidence, saying he’s capable of leading them to victory.

“I think (Kevin) proved that in the last election,” Gingrich told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “If you look at who won and what their recruiting has been like.”

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