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November Just Got Cloudier for House Republicans With Ryan’s Exit

‘You don’t want the captain leaving the ship,’ ex-NRCC chairman says

NRCC Chairman Steve Stivers says Speaker Paul D. Ryan will continue to be a fundraising juggernaut this cycle, but some GOP operatives aren’t so sure. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
NRCC Chairman Steve Stivers says Speaker Paul D. Ryan will continue to be a fundraising juggernaut this cycle, but some GOP operatives aren’t so sure. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Republicans’ most prolific fundraiser is vowing to continue to do all he can to help them keep the majority in the midterms.

But Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s announcement Wednesday that he doesn’t want to be a part of that majority next year has only crystalized the perception that the House GOP is in for a drubbing in November.

“It’s over,” one GOP operative who’s worked on House and Senate races said.

Ryan is one of 25 House Republicans not seeking re-election or another office in a cycle when President Donald Trump remains a constant distraction from the legislative agenda GOP lawmakers want to be touting.

Watch: Losing Ryan’s Fundraising Prowess Adds to GOP’s Midterm Woes

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The short-term symbolism of Ryan’s retirement is a concern, but for most GOP campaign consultants, the biggest political impact of his departure will be what it does to fundraising for 2018 and beyond.

Calling it quits

Vulnerable Republicans on Wednesday applauded Ryan’s decision to spend more time with his family and mostly shrugged off questions about whether this would cause more of them to retire.

“Actually, after two weeks at home, I feel really positive and encouraged,” said New York Rep. John J. Faso, one of the party’s most vulnerable members.

The filing deadline for New York is Thursday. Filing deadlines for other states, including Michigan, Florida, Kansas, Wisconsin and Minnesota, are coming up later this spring, so more members from those states could  choose to call it quits. (Florida Rep. Dennis A. Ross also announced his retirement Wednesday a few hours after Ryan.)

Some Republicans see a certain incongruence in a leader asking imperiled members to run for re-election when he doesn’t even want to stick around.

“It’s reminiscent of the rats leaving the ship, you know?” former Virginia Rep. Thomas M. Davis III said Wednesday. “The model for Gingrich, the model for Hastert, is you run for re-election and then you resign because you’re urging members to run and you run yourself,” he said, referring to former speakers Newt Gingrich and J. Dennis Hastert.

“Paul has certainly earned the right to retire. … But as the team leader — you don’t want the captain leaving the ship,” Davis said.


GOP operatives largely agreed that Ryan’s departure won’t change the politics of 2018, when it comes to what issues are litigated at the ballot box.

Fundraising, on the other hand, is a different matter.

“The timing and execution of this decision is terrible,” one GOP operative who works on House races said in an email.

“There doesn’t appear to be any real transition plan, nor should we expect donors who were committed to helping the Speaker continue to be as engaged as they would have been. It is going to severely impact fundraising for members, candidates, the NRCC and outside groups,” he wrote.

Ohio Rep. Steve Stivers, who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, predicted that Ryan will continue to be the House GOP’s biggest fundraiser through the end of the year.

“He tells me he’s going to keep fundraising,” Stivers said off the House floor Wednesday. “And he believes the people he talks to and his supporters will stay with him and help us.”

Team Ryan, the speaker’s political operation, will continue to raise funds for Ryan’s leadership PAC and the NRCC. Ryan has transferred more than $40 million to the NRCC this cycle. He also told GOP lawmakers Wednesday morning that he raised nearly $6 million during the two-week recess, according to three members who attended the conference meeting where he informed them of his decision to retire. His campaign committee will refund general contributions as required by law.

Several Republicans suggested that Ryan’s retirement could actually free him up to do even more campaigning and fundraising on behalf of members and candidates around the country this year.

But even if he continues to rake in the cash for 2018, there are still concerns about what comes after that. The biggest political hit, one GOP strategist said, will be to candidates and campaign committees in 2020.

“Leaders and members are going to have to step up next cycle to fill that void, which is easier said than done,” the strategist said, adding that Ryan had unique appeal across a wide swath of the party.

“His conservative fiscal beliefs play really well to Freedom Caucus donor types but also his pragmatic approach appeals to New York City donors,” the strategist said. “Depending on who takes his place, those are not easy audiences to appease at the same time.”

Watch: Three Questions About Ryan’s Future

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Democrats had already been making Ryan into a boogeyman this cycle.

Patriot Majority USA has released polling showing the speaker with job performance numbers worse than Trump’s in many districts Democrats are targeting.

“Saying ‘I’m going to vote for Paul Ryan’ wasn’t necessarily a plus in a swing district,” said Davis, a former NRCC chairman. “Nothing wrong with Paul, it’s just the nature of leaders.”

House Majority PAC, the major super PAC helping Democrats’ efforts to retake the House, has made Ryan the subject of much of its paid communication so far this cycle, releasing a national TV ad attacking him last month and running digital ads in targeted districts around the country tying Republicans to his agenda.

That message isn’t going away. “Even without Ryan on the ballot in Wisconsin this November, make no mistake — Ryan’s agenda is going to be on the ballot in every district in the country,” House Majority PAC executive director Charlie Kelly said in a statement Wednesday.

Republicans, of course, are still banking on House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi being unpopular around the country.

“There’s still that nice contrast: one party cut your taxes while the other party mocked them. Nancy Pelosi called them crumbs,” said Courtney Alexander, communications director for the Congressional Leadership Fund, which supports House GOP candidates.

One Republican strategist suggested the party needs more than just the tax overhaul and Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court confirmation to talk about on the trail.

“If Paul Ryan could do something to negate the negative political consequences of his retirement, it would be try to get some other policy agenda through,” the strategist said.

But if that was difficult before Ryan announced his retirement, it may be even harder now as members get caught up in a new leadership race.

“Paul was a tremendous leader, he just didn’t have enough followers,” Davis said.

“The party conference didn’t know how to function as a team, and I think the voters are going to punish them for that,” he said.

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