RALEIGH, N.C. – Republicans are fighting to seize control of Congress. Just don't ask what they'd do if they win.
Look no further for evidence of the GOP's muddled governing agenda than battleground North Carolina, where party leaders packed into a convention hall Saturday night to cheer former President Donald Trump. Even with a high-stakes U.S. Senate election looming, the Republicans there were united not by any consistent set of conservative policies or principles, but by Trump's groundless grievances about the 2020 election and his attacks against critics in both parties.
The lack of a forward-looking agenda stands in stark contrast to successful midterm elections of past years, particularly 1994 and 2010, when Republicans swept into power after staking clear positions on health care, federal spending and crime, among other issues. Without such a strategy heading into 2022, Republicans on the ballot risk allowing themselves to be wholly defined by Trump, who lost his last election when he drew 7 million fewer votes nationally than Democrat Joe Biden and who has seen his popularity slide further, even among some Republicans, since leaving office in January.
“I’m unaware of a GOP agenda. I would love to see one,” said Texas-based conservative activist and former tea party leader Mark Meckler.
“Nobody knows what they’re about,” he said of today's Republicans. “They do this at their own peril.”
The GOP’s embrace of Trump’s self-serving priorities has almost completely consumed the party’s long-standing commitment to fiscal discipline, free markets and even the rule of law. That leaves Republican candidates from North Carolina to North Dakota unwilling or unable to tell voters how they would address the nation’s biggest challenges if given the chance.
Party leaders acknowledge it could be another year or more before Republicans develop a clear governing agenda. In the meantime, Trump, who is focused on the past far more than the future, plans to become a regular campaign fixture again. Building on Saturday's North Carolina appearance, his advisers are eying potential rallies in states with top Senate races in 2022, including Ohio, Florida, Alabama and Georgia.
In an interview, Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who leads the Senate Republican political arm, offered a lukewarm response when asked about Trump's role in the upcoming campaign.
“We both want to take back the majority in 2022. I tell him what I’m doing, and I’d love to get his support,” Scott said of Trump.
He balked when asked whether Trump should serve as the face of the Republican Party for the midterms, when control of the House, Senate and dozens of governorships are at stake.
“The face of the party is each individual race,” Scott said, noting that there will be hundreds of Republican candidates on midterm ballots. “The party is those people, it’s not one person, it’s not one person’s agenda."
For now, when Republicans are not aligning themselves with Trump, they're focusing much of their energy on culture wars and railing against Biden's agenda. The president, backed by narrow Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, has already adopted a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package that was widely popular among voters. Now, he's pushing a massive infrastructure package that polls suggest could be equally popular.
Gov. Larry Hogan, R-Md., worries that Republicans could squander built-in advantages in their quest to win back control of Congress and expand their advantage with governorships. In recent history, the party out of the White House has almost always made significant gains in the first midterm election of a new presidency.
Democrats will lose control of Congress if Republicans flip just five seats in the House and only one in the Senate.
“The only way we can screw it up is with Donald Trump,” Hogan told The Associated Press, lamenting that Republicans in Washington are consumed by infighting and “swearing fealty to one individual.”
The two-term governor and frequent Trump critic continued: “I’m really kind of frustrated with the fact that the Republican Party doesn’t seem to be focused on an agenda. It doesn't seem to be focused on putting up coherent arguments for what people care about."
Some Republican leaders close to Trump are encouraging him to look to the future.
The former president is set to meet this week with the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana, to begin discussing the party's policy prescriptions should the GOP retake the House majority next year.
Trump has met privately with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., in recent weeks to discuss the creation of policy document in line with Gingrich's famous “Contract With America,” which outlined a clear and concise Republican agenda before the GOP's 1994 midterm success.
Trump adviser Jason Miller said it's “a bit of an overreach” to suggest Trump is actively working with Gingrich to create the document.
In the meantime, Republican candidates in key Senate contests, North Carolina among them, are struggling to offer voters a clear vision for what they would do if elected as they fight for Trump's endorsement.
At least three Republicans are competing to succeed retiring North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, who was censured by state party leaders for supporting Trump's impeachment in February. The Republican nomination fight features former Gov. Pat McCrory, current Rep. Ted Budd and former Rep. Mark Walker.
After Trump's daughter-in-law Lara Trump bowed out of the race over the weekend, Trump formally endorsed Budd, the only candidate in the Republican primary who voted against certifying Trump's 2020 election loss.
Walker had called himself the most “pro-Trump congressman from North Carolina" but that apparently was not enough to win Trump's backing.
Beyond courting Trump, Budd has also played up the GOP’s culture wars. In his kickoff video, the gun store owner addressed growing immigration at the border with Mexico and the decision by Dr. Seuss' publisher to stop printing some of the popular children's book author's books because of racist imagery. Budd said he read the books to his children “and they turned out just fine.”
Trump slapped at McCrory in Saturday's address by reminding voters, without using his name, that the former Republican governor had previously lost two elections.
McCrory, who hails from the GOP's business wing, has embraced elements of Trump’s agenda, but has been critical of Trump's false claims about election fraud.
“I’m not going to be diverted by talking about the past because I care about the future,” he told the AP in April.
With 17 months before the 2022 general election and few voters paying close attention to the midterm jockeying, Republicans have time to develop an agenda that moves beyond Trump's grievances and conservative culture wars.
But it's unclear whether there is sufficient political will.
Scott, the Florida senator, said his party must ultimately communicate what it’s for — instead of simply what it’s against. But he noted that the "Contract With America” was released only two months before the 1994 election.
“I don’t know if there will be a real contract for America, or everybody will just be more consistent with what they’re talking about,” Scott said of the Republican agenda in months ahead.
On Trump, Scott added, “I think he's going to be helpful.”
Peoples reported from New York.
This story has been corrected to reflect that the top Senate races in states where Trump advisers are eyeing rallies are in 2022, not 2020.