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Trump-DeSantis drama casts a shadow over House GOP retreat in Florida 

Seeking to preserve their fragile majority, most House Republicans are trying to steer clear of the intensifying battle between two of Florida’s most powerful residents.
Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.Drew Angerer / Getty Images

ORLANDO, Florida — House Republicans head to Florida this week for their annual retreat — straight into the belly of the beast of the 2024 presidential primary campaign.

The state is home to both former President Donald Trump, who wants his old job back, and Gov. Ron DeSantis, the young conservative star who hasn’t announced a presidential bid but is making not-so-subtle moves to wrest the GOP nomination from Trump.

As their three-day issues retreat in Orlando kicks off Sunday, Republicans are desperately trying to stay out of the growing Trump-vs.-DeSantis fray. They’re fighting to keep control of their razor-thin House majority and are fully aware that a big knock-down, drag-out fight between the two GOP heavyweights could divide the 222-member conference and distract them from that goal.

“I could endorse in the primary, but I haven’t endorsed. I could endorse, but I haven’t,” Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said last week in Washington.

His members are trying to keep their public focus on retaining control the chamber.

“If we don’t have a majority, the president won’t do us any good,” said Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Tenn.

After a better-than-expected showing in the November midterms, Democrats need to flip only five House seats and hold their current ones to win back the majority in 2024. The challenge may be easier for House Republicans with a strong contender not named Trump at the top of the ticket.

NBC News reported Friday that New York law enforcement officials were preparing for a possible Trump indictment as early as this week; Trump called on supporters Saturday to "protest" and "take our nation back" if that happens.

At the JW Marriott Grande Lakes in Orlando this week, Republicans will be debating their messaging and governing strategy for the next two years, including how their conference will secure spending cuts without risking a debt default and keep the public engaged in countless oversight investigations into the Biden administration and family.

Panel discussions at the retreat will focus on the rising threat from China and border security to energy and the economy. Rep. Gary Palmer, R-Ala., the chair of the Republican Policy Committee, will moderate a discussion Monday night with former Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy and Eric Herschmann, who was a senior adviser to Trump, about how to prepare for committee hearings.

And former NFL quarterback and Super Bowl champion Drew Brees will give a motivational talk Tuesday morning titled, "Working Together as a Team."

“House Republicans are excited to gather for our annual issues conference, where we will work toward delivering on our commitment to America and creating an economy that’s strong, a nation that’s safe, a future that’s built on freedom and a government that’s accountable,” said House GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., who is organizing the retreat with the Congressional Institute. 

While McCarthy, Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., and the large majority of House Republicans are choosing to steer clear of the nascent primary fight, more than two dozen House members are rallying behind Trump, who remains enormously popular among the GOP base and has consistently led his rivals in the polls.

Among those who’ve endorsed Trump are Stefanik, the No. 4 GOP leader; Rep. Richard Hudson of North Carolina, the House GOP campaigns chief this cycle; Rep. Ronny Jackson of Texas, Trump’s former White House physician; Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan of Ohio; and conservative Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida, Mary Miller of Illinois, Paul Gosar of Arizona, Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Harriet Hageman of Wyoming.

Asked what she thought of DeSantis’ traveling to the first-in-the-nation caucus state of Iowa this month, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., a top Trump ally, replied: “Well, he’s the governor of Florida, so I’m not sure how Florida feels about that. … I’m endorsing President Trump.”

On St. Patrick’s Day, Florida Republicans — including Reps. Brian Mast, Byron Donalds, Kat Cammack, Neal Dunn, Mike Walz, Corey Mills and Jackson — flocked to Trump’s golf resort, Mar-a-Lago, for the Palm Beach County GOP’s Lincoln Day Dinner. Trump gave the keynote address.

DeSantis, a former House member, has been generating buzz as he has traveled around the country on a book tour. And many congressional Republicans have been encouraging him to get in the race against Trump.

DeSantis hasn’t made any formal announcement about a White House bid, but picked up his first congressional endorsement last week from Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, who recently attended a donor conference for DeSantis in Florida.

DeSantis has “proven his ability to win at the ballot box time and time again,” Roy said in his endorsement. “When other Republicans were faltering in key races, Governor DeSantis provided a positive vision for the future with prudent, conservative action. The result was crystal clear: Republicans enjoyed sweeping, historic performances statewide.”

A former House Republican lawmaker from Florida who served with DeSantis said Trump remains incredibly popular in his district but noted that DeSantis has won praise from Republican politicians and voters alike for his aggressive push to halt Covid restrictions in the state.

"He has shown leadership in our state, and people are responding to that," the former lawmaker said. "Where there used to be Trump signs, there are DeSantis signs."