LAS VEGAS (AP) -- Fresh off a strong showing in last week's elections, some of the nation's leading Republicans expressed newfound confidence this weekend that they were well positioned to retake control of Congress next year and ultimately win back the White House.
Speaking at the Republican Jewish Coalition's annual leadership meeting in Las Vegas, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a potential presidential contender in 2024, boasted that Democrats were "freaking out" after losing the Virginia governor's race and nearly falling short in New Jersey. Ronna McDaniel, the chair of the Republican National Committee, called Tuesday's strong showing "a tsunami" and a "precursor of really great things to come in 2022."
But beneath the bravado coursing through the grand Palazzo ballroom at the Venetian Resort, the GOP was still navigating around the shadow of Donald Trump, the former president who plans to play a major role in next year's midterms and may again run for the White House in 2024. Virtually everyone who addressed the crowd praised Trump, who also spoke by video. But for the first time since losing the 2020 election, he seemed relegated to the background as others encouraged the party to think about its future.
The Republican strength in Virginia and New Jersey last week was fueled by candidates who deliberately kept Trump at arm's length and successfully turned out rural conservatives who make up the former president's base, while also appealing to suburban voters who had abandoned the party in recent years. That could provide a model for GOP success in future elections.
But Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor who may run for president again in 2024, warned that would only happen if GOP leaders, including Trump, focus on the future instead of re-litigating the past, including the former president's lie that last year's election was stolen.
Republicans have "extraordinary opportunities over the next few years," Christie said, but only if they offer voters "a plan for tomorrow, not a grievance about yesterday."
"We can no longer talk about the past and the past elections, no matter where you stand on that issue -- no matter where you stand -- it is over. And every minute that we spend talking about 2020," he said, was "wasting time." The party needs to "take our eyes off the rearview mirror and start looking through the windshield again."
In an interview after his speech, Christie said he believed Trump's role in the party going forward was "completely dependent upon the president's own behavior."
"If the president wants to talk about the future and spend most of his time talking about the future and what he sees next, then I'm sure that he'll be a welcome voice in any kind of debate," he said. "But if all we're going to do is talk about grievance politics and put out statements saying either you reverse the 2020 election or Republicans shouldn't vote in '22 and '24, I mean, that can't be the leader of our party. It just can't."
The RJC event, dubbed the "kosher cattle call" by its organizers, offered a chance for candidates mulling runs to woo some of the party's biggest and most influential donors on stage and in private forums. Beyond Christie and Cruz, those appearing included former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley.
Candidates running for Congress and governor also worked the room, including retired football player Herschel Walker, who is running for Senate in Georgia, and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who was repeatedly urged to launch a campaign for Senate, which he is considering.
"We're sort of the kosher nostra gatekeepers for whose running down the road. You have to come here first and show us your stuff," said former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, who serves on the group's board of directors. "It's really fun to watch potential future candidates strut their stuff, to see what they got. They're going to improve, they're going to have to change. It's years away. But this is how candidates get better."
But first, some of the attendees stressed, came winning next year.
"A lot of people have come here to audition," noted Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. "We have a very rich bench. We have a lot of energetic people. We have resumes that I think would make them qualified to lead this nation. But none of that matters to me until you get 2022 right."
With that in mind, some of those eyeing presidential runs made sure to first emphasize the importance of next year's elections. Pence was among those who received the loudest applause as he served as the headlining speaker on Saturday night, predicting the country was "just 12 months away from a great Republican comeback."
"Right here and right now, from this point forward, we will all resolve to do our part to win back the House, the Senate, governorships across the country in 2022," he said, offering no hits about plans for his own political future. "And we're going to win back this country in 2024."
Others focused on culture war issues surrounding vaccination mandates and critical race theory, an academic framework that came to dominate the final weeks of the Virginia governor's race. It centers on the idea that racism is systemic in the nation's institutions and that they function to maintain the dominance of white people. In recent months, it has become a catch-all political buzzword for any teaching in schools about race and American history.
DeSantis, who proclaimed his state the "freest" in the country, railed against pandemic restrictions, including mandatory vaccinations, while South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, like others, accused the administration of turning its back on Israel.
"They're not just trying to discredit Israel," she said. "They're not just trying to defund Israel. They're not just trying to alienate Israel. They're trying to delegitimize Israel. And they're challenging Israel's right to exist."
And they stressed lessons learned from Tuesday, including the importance of focusing on issues that voters care about, including education.
"Virginia was won by parents. Virginia was won by moms -- moms who were frustrated, who were outraged at the arrogance and the condescension of Democratic school boards and of a Democratic administration that looks down on them," said Cruz.
"You just woke up a whole bunch of moms," echoed McDaniel.