Speaker Johnson's House GOP retreat a failure marred by poor attendance and constant infighting

 March 16, 2024

By all accounts, House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) is a genuine and likable guy with an upbeat attitude and quiet demeanor -- though that hasn't translated well in his current position, as he seems to lack a commanding presence and his leadership thus far has been somewhat uninspiring.

That likely contributed to what some are calling a failed annual House GOP retreat this week, set this year in West Virginia, as less than half of the conference showed up and much of the time was spent addressing chaotic infighting instead of unifying around a common agenda, according to the Washington Examiner.

"Paltry" attendance at annual House GOP retreat

The Examiner reported that attendance at the House GOP retreat in West Virginia this year was "paltry," with only around 100 members of the 219-strong conference making an appearance, and a variety of excuses from others for not showing up.

Some of the absences were understandable, to be sure, such as the 21 Republican lawmakers -- so far -- who are leaving Congress to retire or run for another office, with an unnamed aide for one of those departing members saying the event would be a pointless and a "waste of time" for them.

Other excuses, some more plausible than others, included a desire to spend time with family or with constituents in their home district, or to attend campaign events or prepare for upcoming primary elections.

Yet, the retreat's poor attendance should not have been unexpected, as CNN reported earlier in the week that many members had already signaled their plans to not show up.

Beyond the public claims of scheduling conflicts and election-related activities, the outlet noted plenty of quiet grumbling about frustrations with leadership, the constant bickering with other members, fatigue with last year's incessant leadership chaos, and a general lack of enthusiasm.

Johnson urged an end to infighting and campaigning against incumbent members

Axios reported that a key and repeated theme of the two-day retreat were pleas by Speaker Johnson and other leaders to members to cease the infighting and stop campaigning against each other so that the conference could come together and present a united front against their Democratic opponents.

In one particular meeting, for example, an unnamed source told the outlet that Johnson "just excoriated those who are campaigning against other GOP incumbents in their districts," and added that House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-LA) "seconded what Johnson said. There's no reason to be campaigning against each other."

That was exemplified by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), who skipped the retreat to instead campaign in support of outsider candidate Brandon Herrera, who is involved in a primary runoff against Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-TX). When asked by the Examiner why he was campaigning instead of at the retreat, a spokesperson for Gaetz replied, "House Republicans have been in a state of constant retreat. Congressman Gaetz is on the advance."

Low morale and a dysfunctional "family"

One member who was in attendance at the retreat and supported Speaker Johnson's call for an end to the "dumb" infighting and campaigning against one another was Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-MI), who told the Examiner, "I’m appealing and asking my colleagues to please get over themselves."

"And let’s have the focus be on winning a majority so that we can actually affect the country," he continued. "I do think that Donald Trump’s going to be the next president. Would that not be a whole hell of a lot better for him and the country if we had a Republican majority."

One unnamed senior aide suggested to the Examiner that the low attendance was reflective of the poor morale among GOP members, and said, "The only retreat that matters is the one leadership has done over the last few months to the old swamp tactics that we’ve seen for decades. Backroom process, massive uniparty spending bills, no changes to Washington business as usual."

Yet, in the view of Huizenga, that low morale might have been improved by a stronger showing at the retreat, as he explained, "It probably would have just been healthy to have people around, not in their various camps but actually trying to figure out how we’re going to make this 'family' functional," with an emphasis on "family" in quotes.

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