WASHINGTON — When House Speaker Paul Ryan announced his retirement decision, he did so on his own terms. The political fallout may not be so easy to control.
Ryan’s relinquishing of one of the most powerful positions in Washington left Republicans reeling Thursday over not just who will replace him but whether Ryan’s lame-duck status will jeopardize the GOP’s pitch to voters and donors, and worsen their chance of keeping the majority.
Control of the House was already at risk in a tough midterm election. Voters are fired up amid rising opposition to President Donald Trump and sagging GOP accomplishments. Now some wonder aloud if the GOP grip on the House majority is already lost.
“It’s like Eisenhower resigning right before D-Day,” said Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman from Virginia who once headed the House GOP’s campaign committee.
“Paul Ryan was the franchise,” Davis said. “With Paul, this was a Republican Party they could still give to. He’s a great brand for the party. He’s gone.”
On some level the impact is symbolic. Ryan was once viewed as the future of the party, and he currently is a rudder for a party regularly tossed about by Trump’s shifting impulses. For Republicans fighting for their political survival, it’s hard not to take Ryan’s decision as vote of no confidence.
One Republican in the long list of those already retiring, Rep. Ryan Costello of Pennsylvania, said the speaker didn’t try to walk him off his decision, and in fact seemed to identify with his preference for returning home to family. Some four dozen House Republicans — including powerful committee chairmen — are calling it quits.
Add Ryan’s retirement to the mix, and donors, lawmakers and strategists are raising red flags about and a prolonged period of uncertainty unlike anything ever seen in modern House history.
“It’s not confidence building,” said Ron Nehring, a former party chairman in California, who says Republicans need to boost their legislative accomplishments, especially after having failed to keep their promise to voters to repeal Obamacare, if they hope to motivate Republicans to the polls. “Democrats are going to walk a mile on broken glass to vote against the president.”
On Thursday, Ryan dismissed suggestions from some corners, including lawmakers, that maybe it would be best if he stepped aside rather than stick around until January, when the new Congress is seated, as he intends to do.
“My plan is to stay here and run through the tape,” Ryan told reporters, noting he had “shattered” fundraising efforts by previous speakers, more than doubling his $20 million goal.
“I talked to a lot of members — a lot of members — who think it’s in all of our best interest for this leadership team to stay in place,” Ryan said. “It makes no sense to take the biggest fundraiser off the field.”
Money will be channeled to counter a blue wave of Democrats, who need to pick up 23 seats to flip the majority. The midterm is expected to be tougher, and costlier, than ever, especially amid the expanding battleground of open seats, which usually lack the built-in campaign apparatus of incumbency.
Few Republicans talk any more of retaining control of the House as a certainty. Those doubts are clear in the way they talk about the fight to replace Ryan.
Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus, said he won’t worry much about whom he will support for the leadership post until House Republicans figure out if they’ll be choosing their new speaker in fall — or simply the minority leader.
“At that point we’ll know if we’re going to elect a Republican or Democratic speaker,” he said.
Ryan’s allies insist the party’s top fundraiser and champion of a crisp GOP message remains in full force.
If anything, Ryan’s decision “frees up the speaker to raise more money for Republicans across the country,” said Corry Bliss, executive director at the Congressional Leadership Fund, the political action committee at the forefront of Republican efforts to maintain a House majority.
And besides, the strategist said, the GOP message heading to November is the same. “The central thematic still remains: The American people simply do not want Nancy Pelosi to be the speaker.”
But a fight between two Republicans — for lawmakers’ affections and donor dollars — would certainly be a distraction. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the majority leader, is seen as a leading contender. Majority Whip Steve Scalise is viewed as the likely alternative, and his team noted Thursday that he, too, had broken first-quarter fundraising records, hauling in $3 million.
Already discord is showing. Some conservatives are rallying behind Rep. Jim Jordon, R-Ohio, a long-shot who could inject new uncertainty to the outcome, splinter the vote so no single leader wins a majority.
One rank-and-file lawmaker, Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Ohio, said he doesn’t mind Ryan’s prolonged departure because it creates an opening for lawmakers to tailor their own campaign message. But he acknowledged others prefer the leadership race settled with a unified party message heading into fall. “A lot of people want it over swiftly,” he said.
Associated Press writer Alan Fram in Washington contributed to this report.