WASHINGTON — When House Speaker Paul Ryan announced his retirement decision, he did so on his own terms. The political fallout may not be so easy to control.
Ryan's relinquishing of one of the most powerful positions in Washington left Republicans scrambling Thursday over not only who will replace him, but whether he can stick around until January, as he plans. Ryan's now-lame-duck status threatens to clip GOP fundraising just as his party is facing a more difficult — and expensive — election season than expected. Voters are fired up in opposition to President Donald Trump and Republicans are mindful that their message touting regulatory relief and tax cuts may not be enough.
Control of the House was already at risk in a tough midterm election. Now some wonder aloud if the GOP grip on the majority is already lost.
"It's like Eisenhower resigning right before D-Day," said Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman from Virginia who once headed the House GOP's campaign committee.
On some level the impact is symbolic. Ryan was once viewed as the future of the party, and he currently is a rudder for a party regularly tossed about by Trump's shifting impulses. For Republicans fighting for their political survival, it's hard not to take Ryan's decision as vote of no confidence.
"Paul Ryan was the franchise," Davis said. "With Paul, this was a Republican Party they could still give to. He's a great brand for the party. He's gone."
On Thursday, Ryan dismissed any chatter that maybe it would be best if he stepped aside early.
"My plan is to stay here and run through the tape," Ryan told reporters, reminding that he had "shattered" fundraising efforts set by previous speakers.
"I talked to a lot of members — a lot of members - who think it's in all of our best interest for this leadership team to stay in place," Ryan said. "There is nobody who has come close to being able to raise the kind of funds I have — and still can raise — for this majority ... It makes no sense to take the biggest fundraiser off the field."
But few Republicans talk of retaining control of the House as a certainty. Those doubts are clear in the way they talk about the fight to replace Ryan.
Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus, said he won't worry much about whom he will support for the leadership post until House Republicans figure out if they'll be choosing their new speaker in fall -- or simply the minority leader.
"At that point we'll know if we're going to elect a Republican or Democratic speaker," he said.
Donors, lawmakers and strategists are raising red flags about and a prolonged period of uncertainty unlike anything ever seen in modern House history.
Ryan allies insisted the speaker, who is the party's top fundraiser and champion for a crisp GOP message, will run through the tape, giving the party his all as he races toward his retirement after the fall election.
At the Congressional Leadership Fund, the political action committee at the forefront of Republican efforts to maintain a House majority, Executive Director Corry Bliss says he has Ryan's assurance that nothing will change.
"He's more committed than ever to see what it takes to see that CLF has the resources necessary to protect the Republican majority," Bliss said. If anything, he added Ryan's decision "frees up the speaker to raise more money for Republicans across the country."17 comments on this story
And besides, the strategist said, the GOP message heading to November is the same. "The central thematic still remains: The American people simply do not want Nancy Pelosi to be the speaker."
But a fight between two Republicans — for lawmakers affections and donor dollars — would certainly be a distraction. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the majority leader, is seen as a leading contender. Majority Whip Steve Scalise is viewed as the likely alternative, and his team noted Thursday that he, too, had broken first-quarter fundraising records, hauling in $3 million.
Associated Press writer Alan Fram in Washington contributed to this report.