Speaker Ryan’s exit adds to GOP’s midterm fears
By Scott Wong
In February, as approval ratings for the GOP tax cuts ticked up, Speaker Paul Ryan briefly considered running for an 11th term in Congress.
But the Wisconsin Republican gradually changed his mind in the days that followed. And on Wednesday — roughly seven weeks before the June 1 filing deadline in his state — Ryan called it quits, saying this year would be his last in Congress.
Ryan explained that he was announcing his retirement after 2 1/2 years on the job to give other Republicans enough time to jump into the race, raise money and hold his 1st Congressional District seat.
Running for reelection, and then resigning immediately after the Nov. 6 midterm elections, would be the “normal politician thing,” Ryan said.
“That is what I’m told is the politically shrewd thing to do. I considered that,” Ryan told reporters in a news conference after informing rank-and-file Republicans of his decision.
He cast the decision to announce his retirement now as being in the best interests of his district, since it assured that constituents would get to vote for a Republican who intended to serve in the House after Election Day.
“But just as my conscience is what got me to take this job in the first place, my conscience could not handle going out that way,” he said.
Ryan had been facing a well-funded challenge by Democratic union ironworker Randy Bryce, who goes by the nickname “Iron Stache.”
While he was favored to win reelection and the Cook Political Report before his announcement rated the district as “solidly Republican,” a Ryan victory was by no means assured given the current political climate.
Democrats are now expecting to win back the House majority, and Ryan’s decision to bow out was read across the political landscape as a sign of the GOP’s dire situation. It is likely to hurt the House GOP’s fundraising as donors seek to put more money in the Republican Senate as the stronger bet.
After Ryan’s announcement, the respected election handicapper, Larry Sabato, immediately changed the Wisconsin race from “likely Republican” to “toss up.”
Ryan insisted the prospect of a midterm Democratic wave had nothing to do with his decision and that he was just thinking of how best to serve his constituents.
“I pledged to serve the people of Wisconsin the 1st District honorably. And in order to serve the people in my district honorably, I have to serve them honestly,” he said. “And for me to ask them to vote to reelect me, knowing that I wasn’t going to stay is not being honest.”
Ryan was widely expected to leave Congress at the end of the year.
Until the last week, most would have bet an announcement would not come until after Election Day given the negative signal Ryan’s coming exit would send about the GOP’s chances this fall.
Some Republicans, however, said they had been expecting an announcement as the rivalry between Ryan’s top deputies — Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) — burst into plain view this week.
Ryan’s decision was kept under wraps until about an hour before he planned to inform his colleagues Wednesday morning at House Republicans’ usual conference meeting in the Capitol basement.
A handful of key aides were told of Ryan’s plans on Tuesday night, but nothing leaked out. On Wednesday morning, some lawmaker greeted Ryan in the House gym, where he was doing his daily workout, but the Speaker gave no indication that he was about to make news.
After his workout, Ryan began making calls to President Trump, Vice President Pence and his lieutenants, McCarthy, Scalise and GOP Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.). He then held a conference call with the Wisconsin delegation.
Inside the sprawling Capitol conference room, the same space where Ryan’s predecessor, then-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), had announced his resignation from Congress in September 2015, Ryan said spending time with his family was why he was hanging it up.
When Ryan was first elected to Congress in 1998, he was 28 years old and single; nearly 20 years later, he’s married with three teenage children. The youngest is 13.
Choking up, he recounted the story of how his father died when he was 16. Ryan discovered him dead of an apparent heart attack in their family’s home.
He told colleagues he wanted to be back home for at least some of his teenagers’ childhood.
“It was heavy on him. He choked up a few times trying to get through it,” said conservative Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), a Baptist minister. “In his position, having to go from not just a ‘weekend dad’ but, as he called it, just a ‘Sunday dad,’ he had reached a place where it was very difficult. He said he needed to make a change.”
Not everyone, however, was buying Ryan’s story that he was looking out for his constituents and family. Some of Ryan’s loudest conservative critics speculated that the Speaker is fleeing the Capitol to avoid getting blamed for a blue wave.
They say the 48-year-old Ryan, already a one-time vice presidential candidate, wants to preserve his brand for a future bid, whether that be president or governor.
In an interview with CNN, Ryan insisted he had seen the speakership as his last office.
“Not while my kids are growing up,” he told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “I really thought when I took this job this was the last elected office I would have. I’m not going to run for president.
“Right now, the last thing I’m thinking about is running for something.”