U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan’s announcement Wednesday that he won’t seek re-election rocked Capitol Hill and the 2018 campaign, while spelling an end to a two-decade congressional career that helped define Wisconsin’s recent political history.
The news set off a scramble in Wisconsin over which Republicans may vie to succeed the Janesville native in Congress. In Washington, D.C., the debate was over who might be the next speaker and whether Ryan’s departure is another bad electoral omen for Republicans.
First elected in 1998, Ryan became the first speaker from Wisconsin. He was also the first state politician to serve on a major party presidential ticket, as the 2012 vice presidential nominee in a losing effort.
Gov. Scott Walker, former Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus and Ryan formed a trio of Generation X Republicans from Wisconsin who helped define the national party in recent years.
“Speaker Ryan has become one of the most consequential political leaders of our time,” Walker tweeted Wednesday.
Yet much of Ryan’s tenure as speaker was marked by frustration and discord, with the December passage of a federal tax overhaul a notable exception. Congressional dysfunction stymied many of his legislative initiatives — some of which also were not politically popular — and he had an uneasy partnership with President Donald Trump.
Republicans who could run to succeed Ryan in the 1st Congressional District include state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester; Priebus, a Kenosha native; state Sen. David Craig, R-Town of Vernon; and state Reps. Samantha Kerkman, R-Salem, and Tyler August, R-Lake Geneva. University of Wisconsin Regent Bryan Steil, a Janesville businessman and former Ryan aide, said he’s giving “serious consideration” to a run.
Ryan’s announcement was cause to celebrate for Democrats, who long have loathed his proposals to slash social safety net programs and cut taxes for the wealthy and corporations.
Wisconsin Democrats targeted Ryan with even greater intensity heading toward this year’s election. They touted his departure Wednesday as a sign of their momentum — and GOP weakness — heading into the 2018 cycle. Caledonia activist and ironworker Randy Bryce and Janesville School Board member Cathy Myers are seeking the Democratic nod in the district.
Ryan told reporters Wednesday that he will serve the remainder of his current term but will not seek another one in November. He later told CNN he has no plans to run for office again, including U.S. Senate, governor or president.
Ryan, 48, said he doesn’t want his three children only to know him as a “weekend dad” and said he’s ready to spend more time with them after two decades in Congress, including the last 2½ years as speaker. He was known to sleep in his Capitol office and return to Janesville on weekends.
“I have given this job everything that I have, and I have no regrets whatsoever,” Ryan told reporters in Washington, D.C.
In a Fox News interview, Ryan said he has no plans to leave Janesville.
“I always felt like a Wisconsin guy that came to Congress to make a difference,” Ryan said.
Ryan first announced his plans at a closed-door meeting of House Republicans on Wednesday morning. Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., said an emotional Ryan “choked up a few times trying to get through” his remarks to colleagues and got three standing ovations.
Ryan had been heading toward this decision since late last year, according to a person familiar with his thinking, but as recently as February he considered running for another term. His own father died suddenly of a heart attack when he was 16, and though Ryan is in good health, the distance from his family in Janesville weighed on him. A final decision was made over the two-week congressional recess.
Ryan touted his accomplishments leading House Republicans, starting with the recent overhaul of the federal tax code, which had been his personal cause and the centerpiece of his small-government agenda, even though it helped skyrocket projected annual deficits toward $1 trillion.
Ryan’s decision will reinforce the perception that Republicans face a challenge in retaining their U.S. House majority in the fall elections.
“I have every confidence that I’ll be handing this gavel on to another Republican speaker at the end of the year,” Ryan said.
Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District includes Janesville, Racine, Kenosha and parts of Milwaukee, Walworth and Waukesha counties. It’s a Republican-leaning district, having voted for President Donald Trump by about 10 percentage points in 2016. But some Democrats, including Barack Obama, have competed there, and the district could be competitive in a strong Democratic year.
“There’s a lot of opportunity there,” Democratic Party of Wisconsin chairwoman Martha Laning said in an interview. “People are really seeing that the Republican agenda is not working.”
The filing deadline is June 1, meaning possible candidates have about six weeks to decide whether to run and to gather signatures to gain ballot access.
Kerkman told reporters there’s “a lot to think about,” when asked if she is considering running to replace Ryan.
“Hey, it’s the year of the woman,” she said.
Kerkman said Priebus and Vos are potential candidates.
Vos, Priebus and Craig issued statements Wednesday about Ryan, but none of them indicated whether they plan to seek Ryan’s seat. Two other GOP state senators in the district, Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, and Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, said they expect to remain in the state Senate.
Ryan won’t endorse in primary
Ryan campaign director Kevin Seifert said the speaker won’t endorse a candidate to succeed him in a GOP primary. So far, the most high-profile declared candidate is the alt-right social media figure is Paul Nehlen. Seifert said in a statement that Nehlen’s “bigoted rhetoric and his reprehensible statements should disqualify him from holding any public office.”
“Though he has no plans to endorse in the GOP primary, Speaker Ryan is committed to making sure that a Republican represents Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District in the House of Representatives come November,” Seifert said. Ryan announced this week he raised more than $11 million in the first three months of this year.
Meanwhile, Bryce raised $2.1 million in that span, buoyed by a strong campaign launch and colorful persona, including his @IronStache Twitter handle, that gave him a national profile, too. Bryce said Wednesday Ryan was intimidated by the recent electoral momentum of Democrats.
“Paul Ryan decided to quit today rather than face Randy Bryce and the voters,” Bryce spokeswoman Lauren Hitt said.
Myers posted on Facebook that Ryan “knew he was going to have a huge battle ahead of him, and that the momentum is on our side.”
It’s unclear if other Democrats planned to enter the race.
In Congress, Ryan was part of a group of young Republicans, including Kevin McCarthy and Eric Cantor, who styled themselves as its “Young Guns.” Ryan gained a reputation as a conservative policy wonk who heavily influenced the recent right-ward shift of congressional Republicans, particularly on budgetary matters.
Ryan was pulled into the leadership job by the abrupt retirement of House Speaker John Boehner in 2015. Boehner had struggled to wrangle the chamber’s restless conservative wing and failed to the seal big-picture deals on fiscal policy he sought. Ryan had more trust with the hardliners in the House. He led passage of the tax overhaul law in December that, in scope, was a once-in-a-generation change.
But Ryan had no more success in other areas, such as getting Obamacare repeal made law or brokering fundamental reductions to safety net programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security — policies he had long advocated.
Ryan told reporters Wednesday that he’s disappointed about not accomplishing those changes, but believed his budget proposals contributed to “normalizing entitlement reform.”
Ryan ultimately had to wrestle with another unexpected challenge: a president, in Trump, of Ryan’s party, but with little of his interest in policy detail or ideological purity. The two have not had a close working relationship. Some have criticized Ryan for not standing up more forcefully to Trump, while the president’s supporters questioned Ryan’s loyalty to him.
Trump and Ryan sparred publicly during the 2016 campaign and shortly after Trump took office, with the president at one point angrily tweeting Ryan is “a weak and ineffective leader.”
But past spats seemed forgotten by Trump on Wednesday. He tweeted: “Speaker Paul Ryan is a truly good man, and while he will not be seeking re-election, he will leave a legacy of achievement that nobody can question. We are with you Paul!”
State Journal reporters Molly Beck and Matthew DeFour and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect that Paul Nehlen is not the only declared Republican candidate for the 1st Congressional District seat. The two Republican candidates in the 1st District who have registered with the Federal Election Commission are Nehlen and Nick Polce, a Lake Geneva businessman and Iraq War veteran.