Ryan's Retirement Has GOP Grappling With Midterm Impact

Ryan's Retirement Has GOP Grappling With Midterm Impact
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
Ryan's Retirement Has GOP Grappling With Midterm Impact
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
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Speaker Paul Ryan announced Wednesday he will not seek re-election and plans to end his two-decade career in Congress after this year, sending shockwaves through Washington and jarring Republicans seeking to retain their House majority this fall.

Ryan, who has been the top fundraiser for House Republicans since becoming speaker, told his GOP colleagues he planned to “run through the tape” – a runner’s metaphor meaning he would push onward to the end and continue assisting them in their re-election campaigns.

“I have every confidence that I’ll be handing this gavel on to the next Republican speaker of the House next year,” the Wisconsin lawmaker said at a morning press conference. When asked whether the chance of losing the House factored into his decision, Ryan said: “None whatsoever, actually,”

He attributed his decision to both a sense of accomplishment about his time as speaker, citing the Republicans’ tax cut law and new military funding, and a desire to spend more time at home with his wife and teenage children. Though rumors about Ryan’s future have swirled since late last year, he kept the decision close to his vest. A person familiar with Ryan’s decision said he had been contemplating retirement for months, having conversations with his family and a small group of staff. The final decision came during the House’s Easter recess, and the speaker informed the president, vice president and the GOP leadership team Wednesday morning.

Ryan said he gave thought to the impact of his retirement on the midterm elections, but didn’t believe it would be a factor.

“I really do not believe whether I stay or go in 2019 is going to affect a person’s individual race for Congress,” he said. “If we do our jobs, as we are, we’re going to be fine as a majority.”

Still, Ryan’s announcement serves as the most significant warning sign yet that the party’s hold on the House of Representatives is in danger, and his impending exit could trigger further retirements within the conference as other lawmakers analyze the political climate for November. Florida Rep. Dennis Ross also announced Wednesday that he would not seek re-election.

Ryan’s decision also comes against the backdrop of a White House seeming to operate in a continuous state of chaos, which has routinely interrupted GOP lawmakers’ attempts to promote their tax cut legislation and improvements in the economy. As speaker, Ryan has had to navigate a climate in which Republicans control all levels of power in government but are also subject to the whims of an unpredictable president.

Case in point: Even at his press conference Wednesday, Ryan had to field questions about whether Trump might fire special counsel Robert Mueller. Ryan said he had received assurances from the White House that Trump wouldn’t take that route.

Additionally, long-standing ideological divisions within the conference have continued to make Ryan’s job an unenviable one, particularly on fundamental must-pass measures related to government funding and the budget.

For his part, Trump wished Ryan well, tweeting: “Speaker Paul Ryan is a truly good man, and while he will not be seeking re-election, he will leave a legacy of achievement that nobody can question. We are with you Paul!”

The announcement now renders Ryan a lame duck speaker, which could compromise his ability to move any significant agenda items through the body and to fundraise for his colleagues facing difficult re-election bids. His decision to retire at a time when Republicans have several structural advantages — control of Congress, a stable economy, favorably drawn districts — could further dampen morale within the House GOP.

His announcement also sets in motion what could be a competitive race for the next leader of the Republican conference. Already, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who has been a top ally of President Trump’s, and House Whip Steve Scalise are angling for the position.

Ryan becomes the 39th Republican to retire from Congress ahead of the midterms, putting an additional seat in play, though the party is confident in retaining Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District: Ryan’s political team released a poll from March showing him leading his Democratic opponent, Randy Bryce, by 21 percentage points.

In addition, announcing his retirement now ends a months-long guessing game about his future, which could provide more certainty for GOP candidates and donors. It could also embolden him to push forward with legislative priorities that could otherwise threaten his speakership or his standing.

On Wednesday, lawmakers began to grapple with the implications of Ryan’s impending departure, particularly for their own races and the party’s future in the midterms.

“Make no mistake: Our mission to hold the House continues unabated,” said Rep. Steve Stivers, who chairs House Republicans’ campaign committee. “I’m thankful for all Paul has done for the NRCC and am confident he has set us on a path to keep our majority. Paul is also a man of follow-through and I know he will continue to be an asset to us this fall.”

Still, Democrats leapt at Ryan’s announcement as evidence they are in strong position to win the House majority.

“The American people are hungry for Democratic leadership, and the Democratic Party is organizing in every single ZIP code to provide it in 2018,” said Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “As Paul Ryan heads for the exit, Democrats are fighting to make sure that his Republican colleagues join him in retirement come November.”

Rep. Bill Flores, a Texas Republican, said he didn’t expect Ryan’s decision to have much bearing on the November elections. “He’s been an incredible political leader, he’s been an incredible fundraiser. He’s going to continue to do the same thing,” Flores said.

But Flores also suggested that Republicans should decide on a successor to Ryan before November to alleviate additional uncertainty.

“The only thing that might be helpful is if we can figure out who the next speaker is beforehand so the American people have a feel for who’s going to lead us,” Flores said.

Others, however, disagreed. Rep. Mike Coffman, who represents a suburban Colorado district targeted by Democrats, said the leadership decision should be made after the election. Coffman also downplayed the possibility of problems with Ryan’s ability to fundraise for House Republicans as a lame duck.

“If there wasn’t a concern about holding the majority, I think fundraising would be tough. But because of the fact that there’s a concern about holding the majority, I don’t think fundraising is going to be tough,” Coffman said.

Others worried about what kind of message it would send to lawmakers on the fence about running again, and questioned whether Ryan or other members in leadership would have the credibility to convince them to stay on.

“It may encourage other Republicans not to run again, I think, more so than affecting the money,” said Rep. Thomas Massie. “We’ve already got twice as many retirements in our party as the Democrats, I think. This may be a signal that it’s okay to retire.

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurns.

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