With Ryan's Exit, GOP May Shift Resources to Senate
Speaker Paul Ryan’s retirement announcement threatens to upend the midterm map for House Republicans and could shift the party’s focus and resources toward preserving its Senate majority in the coming elections.
Several GOP strategists said Ryan’s decision not to seek re-election sends a signal to party donors, operatives, and campaigns that the battle for control of the House may already be a lost cause, and that there could be a greater return on investment from shoring up the Senate.
“For people worried about losing the House, this is confirmation, basically,” says former Rep. Tom Davis, who chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee. “The captain isn’t going down with the ship. I don’t think there’s any good news here.”
While the House map and political climate suggest favorable conditions for Democrats, Republicans see a silver lining in the Senate contests, where 10 Democratic incumbents are aiming to hold on to their seats in states Donald Trump won. But even the typically stone-faced Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, has started to fire warning shots to fellow Republicans, arguing that control of the upper chamber is imperative for the near and long term. “Even if we were to lose the House and be stymied legislatively, we could still approve judicial appointments, which is a huge part of what we do,” he said last week.
Ryan’s decision this week seemed to makes those stakes higher.
“I think the message to donors is pretty unmistakable,” says Josh Holmes, a Republican strategist and former longtime aide to McConnell. “I know that is not the speaker’s intention, and I know that he’s going to do everything he can do to ensure [candidates] have all the resources necessary. But I think increasingly in the last several weeks you’ve seen a migration towards the Senate and I think this doesn’t do anything to stop that.”
"His timing now is going to be interpreted as an acknowledgment that the House is lost," Dan Eberhart, a top GOP fundraiser, told NBC News. "Donors are going to naturally shift their focus to the Senate."
Ed Rollins, a veteran Republican operative who chairs a pro-Trump super PAC involved in congressional races, says Ryan could alleviate some of the concerns from donors and candidates by resigning from the speakership immediately. Holding on to the post through the midterms only ensures a long, competitive and distracting leadership race at a time when the party should be singularly focused on protecting the majority, and begs donors to ask, “‘Who do you give to? A lame duck leadership fund? Or would you rather bet on the Senate and get in the good graces of Senate leadership?” Rollins says.
Senate candidates have already been making adherence to the Trump agenda central to their campaigns, and the prospect of lifelong judicial confirmations by a GOP Senate has been an energizing force for party activists. Trump has also started to intervene to preserve the upper chamber majority, signaling the importance of the Senate’s work to his legacy as president.
Last month, for example, he successfully urged Republican Danny Tarkanian to withdraw his primary challenge to Nevada Sen. Dean Heller and run for the House instead. And during a policy roundtable in West Virginia last week, he criticized Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, who is up for re-election this year, for voting against the GOP tax bill. “He votes against everything and he voted against our tax cuts, and that was bad,” Trump said of the incumbent.
“Holding one chamber for President Trump's agenda is better than losing both, and so I think that's where the focus is going to shift now,” strategist and former McConnell aide Scott Jennings told NPR, framing the mindset of Republican donors and activists.
Rep. Steve Stivers, the chairman of House Republicans’ campaign committee, pushed back on the idea that Ryan’s retirement could have ripple effects with donors.
“No, none. The House matters,” Stivers said. “The House is the idea factory in Washington and that’s why the House matters.”
Corry Bliss, who heads the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Ryan, said in a statement that the group had raised nearly $50 million, thanks to the speaker, and predicted that there would be no downturn in that fundraising pace.
“I know the speaker remains personally committed to ensuring [that] CLF continues to succeed and has the resources it needs to maintain the House Majority.”
One GOP operative familiar with House races said a potential leadership fight between Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Whip Steve Scalise could be a fundraising boon and make up for any money that doesn’t flow through Ryan.
“They’re going to try to outdo each other with fundraising, and donors will curry favor,” the operative predicted. “It’s a little bit of an arms race.”
Davis, however, said neither McCarthy nor Scalise has a large enough profile to be able to make up the difference in money Ryan could have pulled in.
“The guy ran for vice president. Nobody is going to replace Ryan,” Davis said.