Paul Ryan, U.S. House Speaker (Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg)

House Speaker Paul Ryan Won't Seek Re-Election in Blow to GOP

(Bloomberg) -- House Speaker Paul Ryan said Wednesday he won’t seek re-election in November, dealing a blow to congressional Republicans already facing a possible Democratic takeover of the House in the November elections and setting off a GOP leadership battle.

"I will be retiring in January, leaving this majority in good hands with what I believe is a very bright future," Ryan, 48, said at a news conference. "I think we have achieved a heck of a lot."

House Speaker Paul Ryan Won't Seek Re-Election in Blow to GOP

Ryan’s retirement had been the subject of rumors in the halls of Congress for months, and the Wisconsin Republican had given only vague answers when he was asked about his plans. He praised President Donald Trump Wednesday for "giving us the opportunity to do great things," including Ryan’s long-sought tax overhaul late last year. After clashing with Trump during the 2016 campaign, the speaker has largely shied away from criticizing the president.

Ryan said he’s retiring to be more than a "weekend dad" to his children and that he’s confident Republicans will keep the House majority.

Trump wrote on Twitter, "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!"

His departure sets up a battle to succeed him as speaker should Republicans retain their House majority. Among likely contenders are Kevin McCarthy of California and Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 2 and No. 3 GOP leaders in the House.

Scalise, asked by reporters if he’s running for speaker, said, "I’m focused as majority whip on getting our job done." There was no immediate response from McCarthy’s office.

Ryan’s decision comes as recent special elections that reaped Democrats an Alabama Senate seat and a House seat in Pennsylvania hint at a building anti-GOP wave that may overturn the party’s majority in Congress.

More than 40 House Republicans have either resigned this year or aren’t seeking re-election in November. Democrats need to gain a net 23 seats to take the majority.

Ryan told reporters he didn’t think individual House races will hinge on whether he remains speaker. "If we do our jobs as we are, we’re going to be fine as a majority," he said.

Ryan took the speaker’s post in late 2015 after fellow Republican John Boehner stepped aside and his heir apparent, McCarthy, abruptly dropped out of the race to replace him.

The Wisconsin native has struggled to manage the often difficult and thankless task of wrangling the fractious Republican conference. A former chairman of the House Budget Committee, Ryan -- who was first elected to Congress in 1998, at the age of 28 -- has spent much of his career focused on fiscal policy. He’s focused particularly on pressing the need to rein in entitlement growth.

Ryan, who built his career on proposals to cut the deficit, announced his retirement two days after the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the deficit will return to the trillion-dollar level in 2020 with no end in sight. The drivers of the increase include tax cuts and spending increases that Ryan shepherded into law.

The speaker said he will continue pushing to reduce spending on entitlements, which include programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

‘Steadfast Commitment’

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Ryan’s tenure has been “beyond impressive,” including the tax-cut legislation.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said in a statement, "Despite our differences, I commend his steadfast commitment to our country. During his final months, Democrats are hopeful that he joins us to work constructively to advance better futures for all Americans."

Another potential contender for speaker is North Carolina’s Mark Meadows, chairman of the conservative Freedom Caucus. "Leadership positions were never on my bucket list," Meadows said in an email.

Meadows told reporters he will push Ryan to continue pressing the conservative agenda. “Sometimes when someone is leaving they become more bold and not less,” he said.

Ryan has easily been re-elected in his southeastern Wisconsin district since first winning the seat in 1998. While Trump won the district by 10 points in the 2016 election, Ryan won by 35 points.

There is no clear Republican replacement for Ryan in the race for Wisconsin’s first district, according to a person who worked on his campaign. Current GOP candidates include Paul Nehlen, a perennial candidate whose Twitter account was suspended for offensive content, and businessman Nick Polce.

Democratic Contender

The leading Democrat in the race is Randy Bryce, an Army veteran and ironworker. His campaign has support from the national party, and it said it raised $4.75 million through the end of March. Cathy Myers, a member of the local Board of Education, is also running as a Democrat.

Kevin Seifert, executive director of Team Ryan, the speaker’s committee that raises money in conjunction with other House Republican campaign efforts, said in a statement that Ryan is committed to making sure a Republican wins his congressional district and keeping the GOP majority in the House. Seifert said Nehlen isn’t qualified. "His bigoted rhetoric and his reprehensible statements should disqualify him from holding any public office," Seifert said.

If for no other reason, Ryan will be missed by his colleagues for his fundraising prowess. His time as a vice presidential candidate in 2012 helped him build relationships with a national network of donors, and his policy positions were in sync with the sort of establishment Republicans who attend fundraisers.

During the first quarter of 2018, Team Ryan pulled in $11.1 million. So far in the 2017-18 election cycle, he’s raised more than $54 million, a total Ryan’s political aides have called an unprecedented sum for a speaker’s political organization. More than $40 million of the total Ryan has raised has been transferred to the National Republican Congressional Committee, the main campaign operation for House Republicans.

Ryan will continue to raise funds for his leadership political action committee and the NRCC, according to Team Ryan.

So far this election season, Ryan has traveled to more than 30 states and more than 70 cities to raise money. He’s likely to maintain a robust fundraising schedule the rest of this election year, although with his planned exit from power he’s not likely to be as hot a ticket on the fundraising circuit.

A person familiar with Ryan’s decision said that after notifying his family and close friends Tuesday night about his plans, on Wednesday morning he told his leadership team, the president, vice president and his staff before meeting with the House Republican caucus.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.