Paul Ryan's Retirement Puts GOP Hopes of Holding House at Risk

(Bloomberg) -- Paul Ryan’s retirement may jeopardize Republican hopes of saving their House majority in the November congressional elections by disrupting fundraising and exacerbating divisions inside an already fractious conference.

Although the House speaker’s political team said he plans to continue traveling and raising money for Republican candidates in the 2018 midterms, announcing his exit at this stage of what’s shaping up as a tough campaign for the party may give donors and voters pause.

Paul Ryan's Retirement Puts GOP Hopes of Holding House at Risk

“On the financial side it’s a huge blow,” said Tom Davis, a former Virginia representative who ran the GOP’s House election arm from 1999 to 2003. “It looks like the captain is abandoning the ship.”

The climate is already perilous for Republicans with more than 40 GOP lawmakers resigning or retiring and signs that Democratic voters have been energized by a deep anger at President Donald Trump. Democrats need a net gain of 23 seats to win the House majority in November, and about 50 Republican-held seats now are expected to be competitive, according to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

That includes the southeastern Wisconsin district that Ryan has represented for two decades and where there is no clear Republican front-runner to take his place. Cook shifted its rating for the seat from "solid Republican" to "lean Republican” after Ryan’s announcement.

Trump Factor

Republicans put the blame for their electoral challenges on Trump rather than Ryan.

“Everyone knows we are running in a toxic environment and the election will be a referendum on the president,” said Representative Charlie Dent, a moderate Republican from Pennsylvania who is also retiring at the end of this term.

Representative Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican, said control of the House is a coin-flip at this point. He argued that Trump’s mercurial behavior is taking “a toll on members” as they don’t know which issues — nationally and internationally — will take center stage on any given day.

“Looking at some of the days we have had with a tweet here and a tweet there it changes the whole dynamics,” Jones said.

Opening a Void

But Ryan’s announcement will open a void both in fundraising and in managing House Republicans, who now also will be dealing with power struggle for the top leadership posts.

So far in the 2017-18 election cycle, Ryan’s raised more than $54 million, a total his political aides have called an unprecedented sum for a speaker’s political organization.

Davis said some of the interest groups that often hedge their bets by donating to both parties likely will shift start shifting more donations to Democrats in anticipation of a change in the House.

Ryan’s lame duck status also may highlight fractures within the party, which has been unable to deliver on major campaign promises other than a tax overhaul late last year.

“It’s a tough group to tame down,” Davis said, arguing that the caucus’s “inability to work together as a team is hurting their chances to hold the majority. It’s very damaging.”

Reluctant Speaker

In one sign of how difficult it has become to govern, Ryan is the second Republican speaker in less than three years to willingly give up the job. A former chairman of the Ways and Means Committee with roots in the insurgent wing of his party, Ryan reluctantly ran for speaker to succeed John Boehner in 2015 after being coaxed by Republican allies who told him he was their best hope of bridging GOP divides.

Representative Steve Stivers of Ohio, who chairs the House Republican election arm, said he wasn’t worried about the message Ryan’s retirement would send to swing districts.

“Ryan is here through the end of the year and I think we’ve got other leaders who are equally attractive to swing districts,” Stivers said. “I don’t think we’ll have a long leadership race, I think everyone is going to help us win the majority and then there’ll be a race for speaker assuming we get the majority.”

Election Impact

Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican who’s running for re-election in Florida, echoed that sentiment: “I’ve never gone to a supporter and said ‘hey, I want you to support me because Paul Ryan’s speaker’ or because somebody else is speaker,” he said.

Representative Steve Scalise, the third-ranking Republican in the House said he wasn’t concerned that the party’s top leader planning his departure in an election year would affect GOP efforts to attract candidates for open seats in swing districts or trigger more retirements.

“There were already a lot of Republicans retiring. We’ve been active in recruiting good people to replace them,” said Scalise, a Louisianan seen as a potential successor to Ryan. “Look, it’s a tough political climate right now but we’re well-aware of it.”

Ryan was once billed as the face of the Republican Party’s new generation of conservative leaders and he was the GOP vice presidential nominee in 2012. But his brand of conservatism has faded as Trump’s nationalist and nativist vision has become dominant in the party.

He and Trump clashed during the 2016 election, but since then Ryan has been a loyal ally of the president, working with him to deliver a steep tax cut and defending him to institutionalist skeptics despite their disagreements on issues like tariffs.

Democrats reacted triumphantly to Ryan’s exit.

“Speaker Ryan sees what is coming in November, and is calling it quits rather than standing behind a House Republican agenda to increase health care costs for middle class families while slashing Social Security and Medicare,” said Tyler Law, a spokesman for the House Democratic election committee. “Stay tuned for more retirements as Republicans increasingly realize that their midterm prospects are doomed.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.