Fresh off two crucial special election wins in North Carolina, House Republicans head to Baltimore on Thursday for their delayed annual retreat, prepared to spend some quality time discussing how they plan to win back the majority in 2020.
Some of that planning will most certainly involve policy discussions about contrasting their proposals on jobs and the economy, health care, technology, energy and the environment, and other issues with what they often refer to as the Democrats’ “socialist” ideas. But a good chunk of the gathering, which will run from Thursday afternoon through Saturday morning, will be about assessing the political landscape.
“Part of it’s political, I believe, and part is policy. What’s our path to victory?” Indiana Rep. Susan W. Brooks said of the agenda. “And I’m particularly excited as the recruitment chair because there have been amazing people from around the country that I’ve been talking to. And so I hope to spread some of that enthusiasm for the type of candidates that we’re recruiting and who are stepping up.” Brooks is not running for reelection in 2020.
Republican lawmakers acknowledge that the political discussion may be heavier at this retreat than past years when they were in the majority.
“Not just being in the minority — I think that’s part of it — but I think you fast-forward it nine months later into the session from when our normal date was, so now everybody’s getting ready to file, and you’re closer” to the start of the 2020 election cycle, Republican Conference Vice Chairman Mark Walker said.
The North Carolina Republican was referring to the retreat being held in September, as opposed to the originally scheduled February dates that were canceled due to the partial government shutdown.
The House GOP had originally planned to return to the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia this year, but moving the dates resulted in the relocation to Baltimore. Announced after President Donald Trump publicly panned the Maryland city as rat-infested and dangerous while also slamming Democratic Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who represents most of Baltimore, it was a curious choice.
Trump is slated to address House Republicans over dinner at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront on Thursday night. Protesters are already planning to line up outside the hotel.
A coalition of local activist groups under the umbrella of the Baltimore Welcoming Committee has planned demonstrations all three days that House Republicans expect to be in town. The protests are focused on racism, labor organizing, LGBTQ rights and climate change. The group is also planning “anti-corruption light projections” at night around the retreat venue and a Democratic debate watch party Thursday evening after Trump’s speech.
Rep. Bill Flores said Trump’s address to the conference is likely to be “long and interesting and full of energy.”
“I guarantee you it will be a whole lot more fun than the Democratic debate, except for the headlines they’re going to wind up giving us when they go through their spiel,” said the Texas Republican, who has also opted against reelection next year.
Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to address House Republicans over lunch on Friday.
Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis expects more robust discussions between longtime members and freshmen at the retreat.
“It’ll probably be more interactive. Usually when you do it right after the beginning of a new Congress, like we would have done it this year, you get a lot more new members that are just shell-shocked,” he said.
Davis said the newcomers, now with more than eight months in office under their belts, will be able to engage more fully.
“They’re a little more comfortable, now,” he said. “They’ll probably debate the issues a little more. So they might last little longer, these sessions.”
Ahead of the retreat, members said they were sent three policy breakout sessions they could sign up for: one on foreign affairs and defense matters, like relations with China, Iran and Russia; one on workforce, student loan debt and rural issues; and one on technology, communications and innovation.
Ways and Means ranking member Kevin Brady said health care will also be on the agenda at the retreat.
“The goal is to lift our eyes and identify what type of personalized health care Americans deserve that is better than the existing system,” the Texas Republican said.
Several members said they expect a discussion on the proposed new trade agreement between the United States, Canada and Mexico, as Republicans ramp up their efforts to try to get Speaker Nancy Pelosi to bring it to the floor this fall.
National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Emmer will lead a presentation on the political landscape and the campaign arm’s strategy for winning back the majority.
“It’s kind of an update as far as these competitive districts, what it’s looking like on the ground, where some of the resources are being invested,” Walker said. “And there will probably be some kind of prognostication to some degree.”
Brooks said she’s not scheduled to present but plans to speak up in the session about her recruitment efforts.
“That’s a big part of why I’m going is to really just share with people,” she said. “Because most people know who’s running in their own state, but they don’t know who’s running the next state over and in open seats.”
Brooks, among the dozen Republicans who’ve announced plans to retire at the end of this term, also wants to spread the message that retirements are normal and members shouldn’t fret about the departures.
“We aren’t close to the number of retirements that we had last Congress or the Congress before,” she said. “We are a conference that does turn over more, and I think that’s a good thing. And all this new energy and the new people I’ve been talking to, they’re going to be fine.”
Some of the political discussion will likely be a celebration and dissection of the special elections in North Carolina that Republicans won Tuesday night. In the 3rd District, Republican Greg Murphy won the seat left open after longtime GOP Rep. Walter B. Jones died. And in the 9th District, Republican Dan Bishop eked out a win over Democrat Dan McCready.
Election analysts say that despite the win, the 9th District race is an illustration of Republicans’ problems in the suburbs. Brooks said the GOP will likely talk about that, but it won’t be anything they haven’t analyzed before.
Bishop will be at the retreat, according to a spokeswoman. Murphy’s campaign hadn’t responded to an inquiry at press time about whether he plans to attend.
“In many ways, we’ve been dissecting suburban voters since I came to Congress in 2013,” Brooks said. “You know, Charlie Cook came in the very first political conference I attended … and talked about, ‘Hey, we’re starting to see changes,’” she said, referring to the political analyst.
In the 2016 cycle, House Republicans prepped for their political campaigns in part by developing a policy agenda called “A Better Way” that they and their presidential nominee could run on. Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole said he’s heard no discussions at this point about developing a similar plan for the 2020 cycle, noting that it’s a different environment with Trump already in the White House.
“It’s going to be how well does the president run, and particularly does he run well in the seats that Democrats picked up last time that we would expect him to carry,” said Cole, a former NRCC chairman. “And no matter what his national standing is, I don’t think he’s going to lose a lot of congressional seats that he carried in 2016. So within that microcosm, I think we’ve got a pretty good environment for running.”