Ryan's 2016 Role: GOP Frontman, Rainmaker
Paul Ryan may not be running for president this year, but he’ll still play a critical role in GOP election efforts this fall, and events last week provided the script.
In a hastily scheduled press conference at the Republican National Committee headquarters last Monday, the House speaker attempted to permanently stamp out rumors Republicans might draft him as their presidential nominee at the convention this summer. He then quickly pivoted back to where he’s been for months, talking about his policy vision for the Republican Congress and his wish to be an “optimistic party” that is “defined by our solutions.”
“This job provides a platform to communicate a conservative vision for our country, and I’m intent on using it,” said the Wisconsin Republican. “Not for me, but for my House colleagues and for all those who believe that conservatism holds the key to a more confident America.”
Two days later, Ryan’s political team announced the speaker raised $17 million in the first quarter – $11 million of it given to House Republicans’ campaign committee – including $6 million in March alone, a monthly record for the committee.
The events showcased the ways Republicans think Ryan will be essential this fall: raising record sums while providing a policy blueprint and traveling the country to provide a spark to down-ballot campaigns as Republicans seek to hang onto their congressional majorities in a tumultuous and unpredictable election cycle. This may prove particularly important – and increasingly necessary – should Donald Trump or Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, both of whom have high unfavorability ratings, win the nomination.
Brian Walsh, a GOP operative and former communications director for Senate Republicans’ campaign committee, said he thinks Ryan will offer an “alternative face” to a potentially unpopular nominee, and that he expects the speaker to be “in high demand” among congressional candidates.
“I do not think [incumbents] would want to be seen with Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, and so to the extent that you have other Republican leaders who are widely respected, that’s only a net benefit this fall in what I expect will be a tough political environment for Republicans,” Walsh said.
Indeed, Ryan’s political workload as speaker has already been considerable, with appearances at more than 40 events in Washington for House Republicans and nearly 100 events on the road this year. He’s shown up at events in Washington with almost every Republican in the Patriot Program – a group of nearly two-dozen GOP lawmakers facing competitive re-elections. He’s stumped in Utah for Rep. Mia Love and in Texas for Rep. Will Hurd, two Republicans seen as top targets for Democrats this year.
Some GOP leaders worried that Ryan’s decision to spend most weekends with his family in Wisconsin would cut into his fundraising time, compared to his predecessor, John Boehner, but so far Ryan has nullified that concern.
“People don’t fundraise on weekends; the only reason Speaker Boehner did is because he likes to golf,” said one GOP operative. “Fundraising primarily happens Monday through Friday, so it was just trying to get people off of this mindset that weekends matter.”
The speaker’s job as rainmaker and campaign surrogate for his colleagues in Congress isn’t exactly novel. Boehner, who was forced out of the House last year amid conservative unrest, was a prolific fundraiser and played a critical part in helping Republicans gain the majority in 2010. Across the aisle, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi is one of her party’s top fundraisers and campaign operatives – she raised $16 million in the first quarter this year, including $14 million for the House Democrats’ campaign committee.
For Ryan, the difference will be his experience campaigning for Republicans when he was the party’s vice presidential nominee four years ago. Ryan’s team sees him as effective at fundraising, nimble in intimate campaign settings and able to spark energy at large rallies in a variety of districts.
Ryan has also called on his House colleagues to focus heavily on policy heading into this election year, creating groups of lawmakers to craft policy positions on issues ranging from national security to welfare reform, and they also hope to draft an outline for an Affordable Care Act replacement, which Republicans have struggled to produce for years. Ryan’s goal is to give his colleagues a set of ideas to run on this fall.
Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a freshman from Florida facing one of the most competitive House elections this year, called Ryan the “most well-rounded speaker in modern history.” He pointed to Ryan’s fundraising numbers and his ability to work with people across the spectrum as key reasons he thinks the speaker would be a helpful presence this fall.
“I really don’t know how he’s done it,” Curbelo said of Ryan’s fundraising. “He really is the unifying force right now in the Republican Party. He’s trusted by all members of the conservative coalition in the United States, and I think he also inspires young people. He’s just a very compelling figure in our political system today."
Democrats, however, see Ryan’s role in the campaign as an opportunity to link Republican candidates to his past budget blueprints, which would have dramatically cut federal spending and changed entitlement programs, as well as to highlight the fact that Ryan lost nationally in 2012.
"To campaign with Paul Ryan is to wear the anti-women, anti-senior and anti-family Ryan budget and agenda as an albatross around your neck, which is why voters resoundingly rejected him in 2012,” said Meredith Kelly, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Given desperate House Republicans' open panic about having Trump or Cruz atop their ticket, this false hope for a Ryan bailout is not shocking, but it is delusional."
In past cycles, Democrats have used similar language to tie GOP candidates to Ryan in a critical way. In 2014, for example, Ryan co-hosted a Texas fundraiser for Hurd, who was challenging then-Democratic Rep. Pete Gallego. A spokesman for Democrats’ campaign committee used the visit to attack Hurd, saying the candidate and Ryan “share a dangerous agenda that would jeopardize Medicare and Social Security for seniors, slash benefits for veterans and make dramatic cuts to education programs, all in order to protect tax breaks for the ultra-wealthy.”
Gallego is challenging Hurd in a rematch this year, and analysts consider the race a toss-up.
While the focus may be on maintaining the Republican majority in the House, Ryan will also likely be in high demand among the party’s incumbent senators facing competitive elections in states like Ohio, Illinois, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. Some of the swing House districts fall in states with competitive Senate elections, which could allow Ryan to kill two birds with one stone. He campaigned with Ohio Sen. Rob Portman last fall, for example, and cut a video touting his support for Portman’s re-election.
“He’s one of the most admired people in the Republican Party today and he’s popular really across the board, so I think he could be an invaluable surrogate for Senate candidates,” said Sen. John Cornyn, Republican whip and former chairman of the Senate GOP’s campaign committee. Cornyn pointed to Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin, and incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson, as one race where the speaker would be particularly helpful.
Johnson and Ryan have often campaigned together in the Badger State, including at local Republican Party dinners and events, and are working on future events for the two to appear together. A source close to the speaker’s political operation said he is “all in” on getting Johnson re-elected.
On Ryan, Johnson said, “We all view him as a person of integrity, intelligence, ideas and courage. I’m pleased to do anything I can with Speaker Ryan.”
Other Senate campaigns also see Ryan as a powerful surrogate to bring energy to their campaigns this fall.
“He’s one of the leaders and the superstars of the Republican Party, so I think almost any campaign would love to campaign with him,” said an aide to a Republican senator in a competitive race, who requested anonymity because his office had not yet coordinated an official schedule with Ryan.
But just like their House counterparts, Senate Democrats see Ryan’s involvement in these races as a chance to both invoke his past budget plans and to point out Trump’s success in the GOP primary.
“Republicans are grasping for any sign of hope they can offer embattled incumbents and candidates stuck running in the party taken over by Trump and leading an unprecedented obstruction of the U.S. Supreme Court,” said Lauren Passalacqua, spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “It’s telling that in their desperation, they’ve settled on the architect of the disastrous Ryan budget.”