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The one thing that’s going right for House Republicans

It’s time for House GOP members to get back to touting their economic message

From left: Rep. Jim Jordan, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (back to camera) and House Majority Whip Tom Emmer talk after Jordan did not secure the speakership on Tuesday.
From left: Rep. Jim Jordan, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (back to camera) and House Majority Whip Tom Emmer talk after Jordan did not secure the speakership on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

By the time you read this, we may have a new speaker of the House because, for Republicans and all Americans, there’s a real need to get back to the key issues confronting the country. But even before the speakership fight, Republicans were facing a tough battle for the House next year. The chaos, resulting from the ousting of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., couldn’t have been more ill-advised.

After two weeks of very public internal battles, as of Tuesday afternoon, Republicans are still struggling to elect a new speaker. This fight, however, is not new. Over the past 30 years, four of the last five Republican speakers — Newt Gingrich, John A. Boehner, Paul D. Ryan and now McCarthy — stepped down under pressure from their own party, each for different reasons. The end result has been too many internal fights, some over policy and some personal, that have undermined party continuity and cohesion.

One can only hope that cooler heads prevail when it comes to a new speaker’s tenure because Congress is facing some very tough challenges: a looming continuing resolution battle only a month away, not to mention the pressures of two major wars impacting America’s national security. And whoever becomes speaker will have to fire up a leadership staff quickly to address these challenges — no small feat under the best of circumstances.

Then there’s next year’s election. Despite voters’ clear preference for the GOP on almost every top issue, starting with the economy and inflation, the 2024 election is shaping up to be a difficult environment for Republicans.

Redistricting losses have already put House Republicans’ majority at risk when a switch of only five seats gives Hakeem Jeffries the speaker’s gavel. Republicans are likely to lose a House seat in Alabama, the result of another unnecessary intraparty fight.

Another seat in South Carolina is in jeopardy, although the U.S. Supreme Court seemed to lean toward the Republican side during oral arguments. A seat in Louisiana is also under caution, but Republican Jeff Landry’s outright win in the state’s all-party primary is a positive sign going into 2024.

The possibility of a new court-ordered New York map could mean the loss of up to four seats, depending on how partisan the lines are drawn. With a number of court cases pending, redistricting alone could mean a loss of two to six seats for Republicans.

Then there are the 18 Republican members, caught in the current chaos, sitting in districts that President Joe Biden won in 2020. Given former President Donald Trump’s negatives, especially with independents, he’s not likely to have the electoral coattails to bring in marginal, mostly moderate seats. On the other side, only five Democrats are in districts carried by Trump.

But Republicans have one big advantage going into 2024. The top issue, far and away, is the economy, with inflation as a major sub issue. On the plus side, Republicans have a significant advantage on handling voters’ major economic issue concerns, leading Democrats by 14 points on the economy (51 percent to 37 percent) and by 15 points on inflation (50 percent to 35 percent) in the latest “Winning the Issues” survey.

To date, polling shows that despite significant legislation in the past 10 months that would positively impact people’s pocketbooks, that isn’t the message voters are hearing from the GOP. In fact, the “Winning the Issues” survey asked voters to rank the issue messages they were hearing from each party and the Republicans’ messaging on the economy came in fifth. It should have been first because they have a good story to tell.

HR 1, the Lower Energy Costs Act, is a prime example of a House Republican legislative success that addressed a top economic concern of voters. As the House Energy and Commerce Committee puts it, this legislation, which passed the House, is designed to “restore American energy independence” by “increasing domestic energy production, reform the permitting process for all industries and reverse the anti-energy policies” of the Biden administration.

But, again, that’s not what voters are hearing.

So it’s no surprise that when voters were also asked which party is doing a better job addressing the issues that concerned them most, the result was a wash (36 percent President Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress to 34 percent Republicans in Congress).

Still, Biden’s dismal poll ratings on his handling of the economy are near historic. Monday’s RealClearPolitics average puts his economic job approval at 37 percent/60 percent approve/disapprove.

The Winning the Issues survey also shows Biden struggling on the economy, with 60 percent of voters saying inflation is getting worse; 16 percent say it’s getting better; and 21 percent saying it’s the same. When asked if the economy has improved since Biden took office, only 29 percent believed that statement, while 61 percent did not.

This month’s “Presidential Inflation Rate” explains the failure of the Bidenomics communications effort to persuade voters that life is better under Biden. The PIR measures the rate of inflation (based on CPI data) by contrasting the CPI from the presidential inauguration month with the current month.

Based on the September CPI, Biden’s “Presidential Inflation Rate” (January 2021–September 2023) is 17.7 percent, an increase from last month’s 17.4 percent. Looking at specific consumer products, the PIR for food is at 19.8 percent; gas is at 63.4 percent; and electricity is up 26.6 percent since Biden took office.

People understand that the annual inflation rate may be down from a year ago but consumer prices are still going up, just at a slower pace.

The problem for Republicans going forward is that people have more confidence in them to deal with the economy but, even prior to the disruptive motion to vacate, there hasn’t been a strong enough communications focus by Republicans on economic issues. Unfortunately, the chaos caused by the battle for the speakership and now the war in Israel have overshadowed Republican legislative efforts to fix the economy.

Republicans have the No. 1 issue on their side. The biggest question for the GOP conference is: How and when do they get back to the economy?

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, as well as serving as an election analyst for CBS News.

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