Republican lawmakers have gathered in Orlando, Florida, to map out their strategy for returning to power in the 2022 elections, bullish about their chances of flipping control of the House.
But the three-day confab is almost as much about who is not there — former President Donald Trump.
His absence is providing House Conference Chair Liz Cheney more room to make her presence felt and drive home the message that the GOP must focus more on policies and less on the personality-driven politics Mr. Trump helped popularize.
“I think as we look at ‘22 and ‘24 we are very much going to focus on substance and on the issues, and I think that is where you have to attract back the voters that we lost in 2020 by conveying to them that we are the party they can trust, we are the party of competence and conservative principles,” Ms. Cheney told reporters Monday.
The retreat is the first for the GOP since President Biden won the White House and since a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol to protest the results of the 2020 presidential election.
Mr. Trump is teasing the idea of running for president in 2024 and making it abundantly clear that he is targeting the 10 Republicans — including Ms. Cheney — who voted to impeach him.
“He is the giant orange asterisk over many of these conversations,” Michael Steel, a GOP strategist, said on “Julie Mason Mornings” on SiriusXM. “He is very much part of the discussion and very much a question mark.”
Mr. Steel said the path back to the majority for House Republicans hinges on a “Trump-plus” strategy that entails keeping Trump voters engaged while winning “back some of the more traditional Republicans in the suburban areas.”
“That is going to be a very delicate balancing act for the next few years,” he said.
The second day of the GOP retreat on Monday featured Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Mr. Trump’s former press secretary and a gubernatorial candidate in Arkansas, and Ari Fleischer, former President George W. Bush’s White House press secretary.
Former University of Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz, whom Mr. Trump gave the Medal of Freedom, addressed the conference Sunday night.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy on Monday announced the creation of seven task forces and committees dedicated to carving out policies on issues ranging from jobs and the economy to Big Tech censorship and China.
Meanwhile, the National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign arm of House Republicans, released a survey showing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is a drag on Democrats and that voters are souring on the Biden administration’s approach to immigration, spending and taxes.
Mr. Trump is shaping up to be the wild card in the GOP’s push to project a unified front ahead of the 2022 contests.
Mr. Trump has railed against Senate Minority Leader McConnell, Kentucky Republican, and put a bullseye on the back of Republicans who he deemed disloyal.
The party, meanwhile, is divided over the role Mr. Trump should play after the party lost control of the White House and both chambers of Congress on his watch.
For his part, Mr. McCarthy has sought to stay on Mr. Trump’s good side, betting he will be more of an electoral asset than a liability.
But that hasn’t been enough for some of the party’s biggest Trump supporters.
“Remember when Republicans lost the House in 2018 because a bunch of them distanced themselves from President Trump?” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene said Monday on Twitter. “Not inviting President Trump to the GOP retreat is the same stupid behavior.”
“Funny how they don’t understand a record # of votes and support of any R President,” the Georgia Republican said.
Ms. Cheney, meanwhile, said she considers Mr. McConnell and Mr. McCarthy the leaders of the GOP.
She also left the door open for a presidential bid in 2024 and said the Republican senators who led the push to object to the certification of electoral college votes should not run for the GOP presidential nomination.
“I do think that some of our candidates who led the charge, particularly the senators who led the unconstitutional charge, not to certify the election, you know, in my view that’s disqualifying,” she told the New York Post. “I think that adherence to the Constitution, adherence to your oath has got to be at the top of the list. So, I think, you know that certainly will be a factor that I’m looking at and I think a number of voters will be looking at as they decide about ’24.”
The comments appeared to be directed at Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ted Cruz of Texas, two possible 2024 presidential contenders.
Ms. Cheney has faced stiff blowback from Mr. Trump and his supporters for her vote to impeach the former president.
The Wyoming Republican Party voted to censure her, and members of the House GOP caucus tried to oust her from her leadership post.
She survived on a 145-61 vote.
Mr. Trump has touted polls showing Ms. Cheney is in big electoral trouble and has vowed to help take her out in the primary.
“So many people are looking to run against Crazy Liz Cheney — but we only want one,” Mr. Trump said this month in a statement. “She is so far down in Wyoming polls that the only way she can win is numerous candidates running against her and splitting the vote. Hopefully, that won’t happen. I’ll make an Endorsement soon!”
Charlie Cook, of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which tracks campaigns, said it is hard to argue how Mr. Trump would be more helpful to Republican candidates among voters who are Democrat or independent.
“The question is: What about Republican voters?” he said. “Particularly in primaries.”
Mr. Cook pointed to a recent Hart Research Associates/Public Opinion Strategies poll that showed loyalty to Mr. Trump over the Republican Party has fallen since the election.
The survey showed 50% of Republican voters said they were more of a supporter of the Republican Party, compared to 44% who said they were more supportive of Mr. Trump.
The same poll found before the election that by a 54%-38% margin Republicans voters considered themselves more of a supporter of Mr. Trump.