CAMBRIDGE, Md. — Twelve years after he helped lead them into the majority following decades in the wilderness, it seemed fitting that ex-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) was the keynote speaker for the House Republicans’ first retreat back in the minority.
According to Members and aides in attendance, Gingrich told his Republican brethren at the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay on Maryland’s Eastern Shore to challenge themselves to redefine and recapture the enthusiasm for the Republican Party.
“He really outlined the hard work it is for new and bold solutions” to emerge, said Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-Md.).
House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) was more direct. “It was Newt being Newt,” Boehner told reporters, promptly shooting down questions as to whether Republicans were seeking to create another document similar to the “Contract with America.” “No, no, no,” Boehner said.
While Republican leaders and the rank-and-file continue to promote the message of “new ideas,” it appears they don’t yet know where to start.
One leadership aide said the retreat was helpful in getting the Republican Conference as a whole to understand the reasons why the GOP lost the majority.
Republican pollsters David Winston (a Roll Call contributing writer), Ed Goeas and Neil Newhouse led a session that challenged the belief among many House conservatives that they lost because the base did not turn out.
“After the election, many conservatives were out saying ‘We lost the base,’ and none of the polling bears that out,” the leadership aide said. The pollsters “don’t agree on everything, but they do agree on that.”
In fact, the trio of pollsters argued, Republicans turned away moderates and independent voters, some of which turned out in higher than expected numbers. For instance, the pollsters said in the 18-30 age demographic, more than 1.5 million additional votes were cast than in the previous midterm elections.
“That’s huge,” the aide said, adding that the Iraq War was the motivating issue. “It was overwhelmingly an anti-war vote.”
Iraq continues to be the issue looming over the Republican Party right now, as a potentially divisive and damaging vote for the GOP is headed to both the House and Senate floors to put Members on record on President Bush’s Iraq War strategy. Democrats believe a significant number of Republicans will vote with them, sending a strong rebuke to the White House.
After the retreat, there were signs of hope from leadership that the party would be more united behind the Bush administration than anticipated. The president spent more than two hours behind closed doors with the approximately 160 Members in attendance and made a passionate case to commit to success in Iraq, according to Members and aides who were there.
No Member publicly challenged Bush on his war strategy at the session, where he fielded questions from approximately 15 lawmakers. “He seemed angry and determined,” said one source. “But the anger was effective, I think, in getting Members to see how committed he is.”
While in years past the retreat was largely centered on the legislative agenda, this year was focused more on message, strategy, politics and unity.
“It’s not about policy anymore for us, it’s about making [Democrats] take the tough votes and being focused in our politics,” said another aide.
House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) and Chief Deputy Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) made a presentation where they outlined their tactical strategy to make votes as difficult as possible for Democrats.
Blunt and Cantor are monitoring the voting records of the 61 Democrats representing Bush districts. “We’re keeping track of how all of these Democrats vote,” said another aide, noting that those districts will be the starting point for potentially competitive races in the 2008 cycle.
It also was the first major Conference event for the new leadership team, and Boehner said they would work “as a single unit.”
“This retreat is about the future,” he said.
Former Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.), former National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) and former Republican Conference Vice Chairman Rep. Jack Kingston (Ga.) did not attend.