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McConnell wants a policy-free midterm campaign. Others in the GOP are less sure.

When former President Donald Trump ran for re-election in 2020, the party didn’t release a platform laying out Republican priorities; Trump was the platform.
Image: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell arrives at the Capitol on Jan. 12, 2022.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., arriving at the Capitol on Jan. 12, seems to believe attacking the Democrats is what Republicans need to do to win back the Senate in November. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

It’s the minimum that voters often expect of congressional candidates: Spell out what it is they would do if elected. 

Yet inside the Republican Party, key leaders are split on whether to roll out any sort of governing agenda ahead of the midterm elections in November. With President Joe Biden’s approval rating tumbling, one GOP faction, headed by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, is betting that skewering the Democrats is all that’s needed to wrest control of the Senate. Another, led by House GOP chief Kevin McCarthy, is drawing up positions meant to persuade Americans that voting Republican might improve their lives.

Beneath the dueling approach to the midterms lies a more basic question about the party’s direction. Donald Trump first ran for office promising a sharp break from party orthodoxy. He questioned the merits of free trade and called for withdrawing U.S. forces from prolonged Middle East wars. As his presidency wound down, the party devolved into more of a vehicle for Trump to air grievances and punish foes. A candidate eager for Trump’s endorsement in the GOP primaries now stands a better chance by showing fealty to him rather than committing to a set of principles. 

In Alaska, Trump endorsed Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy for re-election — so long as Dunleavy, in turn, refused to back Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who voted to convict Trump in the impeachment trial last year. The party’s Trump-centric identity is far removed from the time when Paul Ryan, then House speaker, led a candidate debate in 2016 focused on lifting people out of poverty.

“McConnell, I assume, is hoping that anger with Democrats will carry his members over the finish line,”  said Frank Luntz, a pollster who worked with Newt Gingrich, then-GOP House whip, to develop the “Contract with America.” 

That 1994 campaign manifesto pledged to cut taxes, curb crime and impose congressional term limits, among other issues. It helped to nationalize the midterm election in ways that helped Republicans capture both the House and Senate for the first time in 40 years.

“I know from the work I’ve done dating back to 1994 that it’s not enough to be the opposition party,” Luntz said. “You have to give people a reason to vote for you or they stay home.”

When Trump ran for re-election in 2020, the party didn’t release a platform laying out Republican priorities; Trump was the platform. Heading into the midterm campaign season, McConnell is similarly opaque when it comes to his caucus’s priorities should it retake the majority. 

“That is a very good question,” he told NBC News. “And I’ll let you know when we take it back. … This midterm election will be a report card on the performance of this entire Democratic government: the president, the House and the Senate.”

The calculation Senate Republican leaders appear to have made is that any proposals they put forward might divert attention from Biden’s troubles. How much to emphasize substance versus personal attacks is a perennial question. In the 2018 midterms, Democrats recaptured the House by keeping a sharp focus on health care — not Trump. Rather than follow that model, Democrat Terry McAuliffe lost the Virginia governor’s race last year through a failed attempt to make the election in some ways a referendum on Trump.

No matter what path the GOP follows, the party finds itself in a strong position. Historically, the president’s party tends to fare poorly in midterm races, and even loyal Democratic fundraisers and operatives anticipate a drubbing come November. An NBC News survey this month suggested that by a 31-point margin, people believe Biden’s performance is worse than expected as opposed to better — the widest gap in the last 30 years. (Fifty-nine percent said the Biden presidency has gone as expected.) Biden opens his second year in office with nearly three-quarters of Americans believing the country is headed in the wrong direction.

Explaining McConnell’s reasoning, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the Republican whip, said, “You don’t want to make yourself the issue. … I think right now they [Democrats] are a target-rich environment. They’re just giving us a lot of stuff to shoot at.”

Taking a different tack, McCarthy is relying on seven House task forces and committees to develop a platform by summer that Republican candidates can present to voters. Several House Republican leaders met at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Miami over two days this week to consider different proposals, including preparing for the next pandemic, combating threats posed by China and defending against cyberattacks.

One who took part was Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the House Rules Committee.

“We intend to have a positive agenda,” he said. “We still feel the election is, to some degree, a referendum on the Democrats. But to be fair, you have to recognize there’s skepticism about both parties and Washington’s ability to accomplish anything.”

McCarthy has been consulting privately with Gingrich, who became House speaker in 1995 on the strength of the Republican majority that his Contract with America helped create. McCarthy has similar ambitions. 

“We chat regularly because he [McCarthy] wants to develop a positive momentum,” Gingrich, a close ally of Trump, said in an interview. “It’s very likely that he’ll end up as speaker. Well, he doesn’t want a speakership that is totally absorbed in being negative, which is very easy to do. I would draw a real contrast with McConnell, who said recently that they don’t need an agenda.”

Those distinctions aren’t quite so tidy. McCarthy’s grip on the House Republican caucus hinges on Trump, and he risks losing the speaker’s race to a further-right rival should he run afoul of the ex-president. If the conservative House Freedom Caucus expands its ranks in the midterms, McCarthy could face a serious challenge from Trump loyalists who see him as too moderate. 

It may be no accident that the policies that he and his GOP colleagues are devising are, in important respects, protective of Trump’s interests and responsive to his peeves. Should it gain subpoena power, a House GOP majority is likely to use it to try to weaken Democrats in the run-up to 2024, when Trump may again be on the ballot. Trump has complained repeatedly that he’s been muzzled by social media companies; McCarthy’s office is vowing to confront tech companies “who we see as attacking free speech, going woke, or cozying up to China.” 

Trump has derided Biden’s handling of the Afghanistan pullout. On “Day One,” McCarthy’s office says, Republicans would deploy “various tools at our disposal” to examine Biden’s troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

Critics said they weren’t holding their breath for a serious agenda — from McCarthy, or any other Republican.

“It’s impossible to take seriously the notion that McCarthy, who is firmly ensconced in the Trump cult, is going to come out with anything that resembles a series of ideas,” said Matt Bennett, co-founder of the center-left think tank Third Way.

Meanwhile, a recent appearance by Gingrich on Fox News highlighted another consideration: attacking Democrats, not talking policy, may be the way to excite Trump’s base. He predicted that a newly formed Republican majority would use the chamber’s investigative muscle to turn members of the committee examining the Jan. 6 Capitol riot from “wolves” into “sheep.”

“They’re the ones who in fact I think face a real risk of jail for the kinds of laws that they’re breaking,” Gingrich told host Maria Bartiromo.