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Paul Ryan Leaving Congress? His Constituents Think Not

Wisconsin’s 1st District split on Ryan support but no apparent groundswell of voters turning on him

Speaker Paul D. Ryan has waited until late May to file for re-election the past three cycles. Speculation has been rife in D.C. that he may retire or resign, but many of his Wisconsin constituents think he’s staying in Congress. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Speaker Paul D. Ryan has waited until late May to file for re-election the past three cycles. Speculation has been rife in D.C. that he may retire or resign, but many of his Wisconsin constituents think he’s staying in Congress. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

RACINE, Wis. — Colleen Prochazka and Guy Henken don’t agree on much when it comes to their representative Paul D. Ryan, but they both believe one thing: The speaker of the House is not leaving Congress anytime soon.

“He’s not a quitter,” Prochazka said of Ryan, predicting he will run for re-election this year and “he will not quit the job early.”

Henken, sitting next to his friend and bowling buddy at Buckets Pub in their hometown of Racine, agreed on the latter.

“He won’t quit,” he said. “He just won’t run if he doesn’t want the job.”

Unlike his friend, who supports Ryan, Henken loathes his representative. Twice a week he’d been sending what he acknowledged were “nasty” tweets directed at Ryan, until his Twitter account was suspended under suspicion of being a bot.

Prochazka and Henken are not alone in their thoughts about Ryan’s future and his politics.

Watch: Wisconsin Democratic Candidates Call Ryan Out on Gun Control

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Roll Call interviewed more than three dozen residents of Wisconsin’s 1st District April 6-8 during stops in Racine, Kenosha, Oak Creek, Elkhorn, Lake Geneva, Williams Bay and Ryan’s hometown of Janesville.

Most of those interviewed believe Ryan will run for re-election and, if victorious, will serve another full term. Those constituents were about equally split between Ryan supporters and opponents, with the slight edge going to those who favor the 10-term congressman.

Constituents from all across Ryan’s southeastern Wisconsin district had not heard any local chatter about Ryan planning to retire or resign from Congress this year, despite rumors coming out of Washington, D.C. The few who had heard of the rumors had mostly read about them in the press.

‘No doubt that he’s running’

No one had personal knowledge of Ryan planning to exit Congress, including local GOP officials.

“I have no doubt that he’s running,” said Chris Goebel, chairman of the Republican Party of Walworth County. The Elkhorn resident added that he has no indications Ryan would resign after the November election, even if Republicans were to lose control of the House.

Kim Travis, chairwoman of the 1st District Republican Party of Wisconsin, also said she would be surprised if Ryan were to resign after the election, predicting such talk is just Washington speculation.

“Whatever Paul decides to do, that’s between him and his family,” she said. “I will support him.”

Ryan was home in Janesville during Roll Call’s visit but, through aides, declined to be interviewed. Earlier in the week of April 2, Ryan was in Texas for public appearances on the GOP tax overhaul and poverty push and for a private donor retreat. The week before, he visited the Czech Republic, meeting with government officials and addressing its Parliament. His last known district event was a March 23 Lincoln Day Dinner with Walworth County Republicans.

According to the Wisconsin Elections Commission, Ryan has not yet filed a declaration of candidacy, which is needed before he can collect signatures to get on the ballot. (Candidates cannot begin gathering signatures until April 15.) Typically, Ryan files that form around this time — April 2 in 2012, March 17 in 2014 and April 26 in 2016.

Those timelines align with Ryan’s public comments that he and his wife Janna wait until the spring of each election year to have a conversation about whether he should run — a statement he’s used to deflect questions about his future. The past three cycles Ryan has decided to run, he’s submitted his nominating papers with the required signatures in late May, right before Wisconsin’s June 1 filing deadline.

Rep. Paul Ryan's constituent services office in Kenosha, Wis., pictured Sunday, April 8, is open Mondays through Fridays. (Lindsey McPherson/CQ Roll Call)
Ryan’s constituent services office in Kenosha, Wis., pictured here on Sunday, is open weekdays only. (Lindsey McPherson/CQ Roll Call)

Challengers await

If Ryan runs, as most of his constituents anticipate, he will face challengers. The speaker does not have a serious primary threat, however.

One of the two Republicans planning to run against Ryan in the August 14 primary, Nick Polce of Lake Geneva, raised $950 last year. The other GOP challenger, Paul Nehlen of Delavan, has raised more money — $162,000 in 2017 — but lost to Ryan by 68 points in 2016.

Nehlen has become more polarizing this cycle, making comments aligned with white nationalism that led the Republican Party of Wisconsin to denounce him and Twitter to ban him. Polce has filed a declaration of candidacy, but Nehlen has not; neither have reported first quarter fundraising numbers for 2018.

Two Democrats hope to unseat Ryan — ironworker Randy Bryce of Caledonia and Janesville school board member Cathy Myers. Both candidates announced their campaigns last year but have yet to file their declarations of candidacy.

Bryce has the backing of national Democrats — the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently added him to its Red to Blue program for Democratic recruits in Republican-held districts the party hopes to flip, giving him access to organizational and fundraising help.

In the first quarter of 2018, Bryce raised $2.1 million, bringing his fundraising total so far this cycle to $4.8 million. Myers has not reported her first quarter numbers but her campaign said she raised just under $500,000 for the quarter and has raised more than $750,000 to date. She raised $30,000 in the 24 hours after the DCCC endorsed Bryce and $90,000 in the 48 hours following her February release of a video, “We Will Not Be Ignored.”

Bryce is optimistic about his chances, saying past Democrats did not run as competitively as needed for a solid Republican district.  

“Nobody’s really hit him as hard as I feel he needs to be hit to really take him out,” he said in an interview.

Ryan’s name recognition could actually be a disadvantage for him, Bryce hopes. “People are aware of what he’s about, and I’m counting on that to win,” he said.

Bryce said he hasn’t heard much talk of Ryan leaving Congress but hopes he runs.

“Our goal starting out was to repeal and replace Paul Ryan,” he said. “And that’s going to happen however — whatever steps he does … that’s our destination.”

Myers acknowledges her underdog status, particularly with the DCCC backing Bryce and the national money pouring into his campaign.

“What keeps me going is knowing that I’m the best person to go up against Paul Ryan, or any Republican for that matter,” she said. “And also I will be an excellent representative for this district. I know I can do this job and I can do it well.”

The key to Myers’ campaign has been building grass-roots support. As of January she had made 20,000 personal phone calls to constituents and potential donors. Myers has pledged not to accept money from political action committees.

“My job is to simply make sure that come August, and then come November, that everybody knows me so that they can make an informed decision on my qualifications and my ideas,” she said. “When they get a chance to examine my campaign and who I am and what I care about, I really truly believe that they will vote for me.”

Myers said she’s heard “all sorts of stuff” regarding Ryan — that he’ll run, that he won’t — but her campaign will continue regardless. 

Uphill battle

Regardless of who emerges from the primary, both Bryce and Myers face an uphill battle against Ryan, who in 2016 beat Democrat Ryan Solen by 35 points. The speaker has local and national name recognition and loads of campaign cash he would rather spend on more vulnerable GOP incumbents but that he can divert to his own race if needed.

Ryan’s political team announced Monday that he raised $11.1 million for his joint fundraising committee, Team Ryan, in the first quarter of 2018, bringing his total for the cycle to roughly $54 million. The speaker donates a lot of the money raised for Team Ryan to the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Few 1st District constituents Roll Call interviewed knew much about Bryce or Myers, though more had heard of Bryce through his TV ads and media interviews. Those who identified as Democrats said they would vote for one of the two candidates because of their opposition to Ryan, with a majority favoring Bryce because of his early edge in fundraising and endorsements.

For Bryce or Myers to pull out a major upset against Ryan, locals of both parties largely agree two things would need to happen — Democrats would need to turn out in full force, and some previous Ryan supporters would need to vote against him.

The former is plausible, if not likely, given the Democratic enthusiasm seen in recent special elections and other state races held over the past six months. Wisconsin Democrats were thrilled with the results of an April 3 statewide election for a nonpartisan Supreme Court seat in which Democrat-backed Rebecca Dallet beat GOP-backed Michael Screnock by 12 points.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, said those election results show the state is at risk of a blue wave in November.

“The Far Left is driven by anger & hatred — we must counter it with optimism & organization,” he tweeted. “Let’s share our positive story with voters & win in November.”

In Ryan’s district, Dallet won Kenosha County by 14 points. Screnock won Racine and Walworth counties by 3 points and 8 points, respectively. Ryan also represents parts of Rock County, which Dallet won, and Waukesha County, which Screnock won. The state election website does not break down the results by congressional district, but both the Ryan and Bryce campaigns say Screnock won the district by 5 points. 

As to whether previous Ryan supporters are prepared to vote against him, it’s hard to tell. Of the three dozen constituents Roll Call interviewed, only two said they planned to oppose him this year despite previous support. Those two, from Racine, last voted for Ryan in 2012.

“I don’t think he’s as well supported locally as maybe he was before,” another voter, Sharon Baker Bucklin of Milton, said.

Bucklin supported Ryan in the past, but said she’s not sure how she’ll vote in 2018. Her daughters, one of whom helped organize an April 7 town hall on gun violence with Bryce that Ryan declined to attend, citing prior commitments, are pressuring her to vote against Ryan this year. Bucklin said her decision will depend on the issues and the actions the candidates take to back up their statements.

Bucklin knows the Ryan family from growing up in Janesville, and her kids once went to school with Ryan’s. She didn’t want to speak too ill of him but noted he could do better balancing his personal policy beliefs with what Wisconsin wants.

Unwavering positions

The majority of constituents Roll Call interviewed have not wavered in their position toward Ryan over his nearly 20 years in Congress.

Republicans who have consistently voted for him said they plan to do so again, even a few who expressed frustrations with Ryan. Prochazka, for example, said, “I don’t like how he just sold the barn on the last omnibus.”

Mark Solowicz of Lake Geneva did not vote for Ryan in 2016. Frustrated that Ryan and other local GOP leaders disinvited Donald Trump to campaign with them at a fall festival in Walworth County, he left the congressional candidate question blank.

While Solowicz’s wife remains upset about that to this day, Solowicz is now back on board the Ryan train. His support was solidified after Ryan spoke to Walworth County Republicans at their annual Lincoln Day dinner March 23 and explained what was happening behind the scenes of what the press has characterized as GOP dysfunction in Washington.

For example, Ryan told the group about a deal he and Walker were involved in brokering to get Arizona Sen. John McCain to support the GOP health care overhaul. The agreement, as Ryan characterized it during the dinner, was that McCain would vote for the bill if Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey expressed his support, Solowicz said. The latter happened but the former did not, to GOP leaders’ surprise.

Most Democrats interviewed said they had never voted for Ryan and never would.

“I didn’t like him from the day he started, and it’s gotten worse from there,” Janesville resident John Sathre said.

One of Democrats’ main critiques of Ryan is that he’s lost touch with the district. 

Peg Esposito and Margaret Gregg of Lake Geneva said Ryan used to frequently come to their town for events, but no more.

Republicans disagree. 

Bill Jaeck, finance chairman for the 1st District Republican Party, said Ryan attends the group’s annual caucus, Lincoln Day dinners and district picnics and parades, as well as telephone town halls.

Several people Roll Call interviewed, including Democrats, had met Ryan personally at some point. Many describe him as a nice guy.

When Ryan does eventually exit Congress, his supporters say he will leave behind a strong legacy, including the recent tax overhaul law and other policies that contributed to economic progress in Wisconsin and around the country. Many cited his role in bringing a Foxconn manufacturing complex to Racine as something that will spur thousands of jobs in the area. 

Several Republican constituents said they hope Ryan runs for president one day, while some Democrats predicted he’d eventually become a lobbyist. Some Republicans who know him say they don’t see either scenario happening. 

Goebel said he expects when Ryan leaves Congress, he’ll return to Wisconsin and remain in the public eye in other ways, like through charity work.

Rich Strohm of Lyons agreed that Ryan, the GOP’s 2012 vice presidential nominee, is unlikely to seek another political position.

Instead, he referenced one of Ryan’s favorite hobbies, hunting, saying, “He’ll spend a lot more time in his tree stand.”

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