If House Republicans hope to emerge from their annual retreat with a clearer idea of who could represent the party on a national ticket in 2016, they are out of luck.
Conspicuously absent from the schedule this year are any outside figures in the running to mount a GOP presidential bid. In fact, unlike most years, no politicians other than House members are featured in any panels or keynote addresses. And in-house would-be candidate Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, meanwhile, isn't delivering remarks or sitting on any panels.
That is a marked difference from the past few years, when at least one presidential hopeful attended the event.
At least two of those past attendees, however, are embroiled in scandals that would surely district from the aim of the retreat, which is to help craft an agenda, particularly on how to reform the nation’s immigration system and raise the debt ceiling.
Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, once a potential GOP candidate, addressed the retreat in 2013, 2011 and 2010. His political career appears finished, however, as he was indicted in federal court this month on charges of fraud, conspiracy and obstructing federal investigators relating to an inquiry into whether he and his wife improperly accepted gifts from a donor.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whom pundits describe as the early frontrunner for the 2016 nod, delivered the keynote address when House Republicans gathered in Baltimore in 2012. Christie, of course, has been weathering a high-profile scandal, having just fired aides alleged to have enacted political retribution against a mayor by closing down lanes a busy bridge leading into his city and causing a traffic pileup.
The long-term effects of Christie’s so-called Bridgegate scandal remain to be seen. Still, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., sounded off on Christie’s future on Friday, telling CNBC’s “Squawk Box” that “I don’t count him out.”
“We have a deep bench, Chris Christie and many others,” Cantor said. “He's proven to be, you know, a very effective governor. And I think there's a lot of room for, I think, robust competition on our side.”
House Republicans had a deep bench in 2012 as well, and the retreat the year before featured former Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who ran for president the following year, and former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who considered a run but eventually declined.
Gingrich also spoke the year before that. In 2010, however, a different candidate stole the show: President Barack Obama notably attended the most recent midterm election GOP getaway and sparred with congressmen in a live-streamed event.
Political prognosticators point to Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida as potential candidates. Also on the short list are Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whom Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio said on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” on Friday would make a “great president.”
Three former House members are also discussed as possible candidates — Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Ohio Gov. John R. Kasich and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.
A House GOP leadership aide would not say whether the conference invited any of the figures to attend, but noted that they relish the fact that the focus will be on internal House strategy rather than a look ahead to 2016.
Republican operative Ron Bonjean, who was a longtime House and Senate aide, said that is a good decision, because with the field so wide open, having any potential candidates would be a distraction.
“Without a clear frontrunner for the 2016 race, it wouldn’t be a smart idea,” he said. “By allowing someone into the retreat it would tacitly give an endorsement that one or more Republicans are being favored.”
Instead, the retreat schedule features familiar think tank and media figures, such as Club for Growth founder Stephen Moore, American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks, GOP pollster David Winston, communicator Frank Luntz and journalists Stephen Hayes, Ramesh Ponnuru and Kim Strassel.
The prime-time speaking slots go to college football commentator and GOP activist Lou Holtz, who spoke at the retreat in 2007 and 2010, and author Sean Parnell, an Army Ranger who chronicled his experiences in Afghanistan in the New York Times bestseller "Outlaw Platoon."