Ryan’s Departure Puts Another Seat in Play: His Own

Experts say the 1st Congressional District in Wisconsin is no safe Republican contest without House speaker's name on the ballot

by Brendan Kirby | Updated 12 Apr 2018 at 7:47 AM

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s decision not to run for re-election not only adds another drag on Republican efforts hold on to their congressional majority, but it jeopardizes the party’s control of his very seat, according to experts.

Ryan never has been seriously challenged since winning his southeastern Wisconsin district in 1998. But political operatives and analysts said the electoral terrain will be much different in a race with Ryan’s name off the ballot.

The House speaker’s announcement immediately prompted ratings analysts to shift their assessments of the 1st Congressional District. The Cook Political Report moved the race from “solid Republican” to “lean Republican.” Political analyst Nathan Gonzales moved the race from “solid” to “leans” Republican.

And Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics changed its rating from “likely Republican” to toss-up.

Eric Ostermeier, a research associate at the University of Minnesota's Center for the Study of Politics and Governance and a native of Janesville in the heart of Ryan's district, said the outgoing speaker has been a popular figure back home.

"But Janesville's a pretty Democratic city … This is a seat that could easily flip this fall," he told LifeZette.

Although Ryan mostly has coasted to re-election, Ostermeier noted that the incumbent's Democratic opponent in 2012 held him to 55 percent of the vote. That was the same year that Ryan's name also appeared on the ballot as the GOP's vice presidential candidate.

President Donald Trump carried Ryan's district by about 10 percentage points in the 2016 presidential election. But Ostermeier, who runs the Smart Politics website, noted that a liberal Supreme Court candidate carried the district during a special election last week.

Ryan Bullish on GOP Prospects
Ryan's decision makes him a lame duck at a time that the party already was girding for a grim midterm election environment. The speaker told reporters that he considered running for re-election and then resigning a short time later. But he said he concluded that it would be dishonest and unfair to his constituents.

"I gave that some consideration, but I really don't believe [that] whether I stay or go in 2019 is gonna affect a person's individual race for Congress," he said.

Ryan said he is bullish about his party's prospects.

But political consultant Noel Fritsch, who is familiar with the district, said it very much is in play. He said the timing of Ryan's announcement creates a short "four-month runway" to the primary that leaves little time for candidates to raise money and build a first-rate campaign.

"The only kind of candidate who would be able to keep that seat red is someone who has populist appeal."

Fritsch, who worked for Republican candidate Paul Nehlen's primary challenge of Ryan two years ago but is no longer affiliated with him, said the Democrats will have a strong and well-funded candidate if frontrunner Randy Bryce wins his party's nomination.

In addition to having difficulty raising large sums of campaign cash in a short period of time, Fritsch said none of the potential Republican candidates have the kind of issues set and personality that will be necessary in the fall.

"The only kind of candidate who would be able to keep that seat red is someone who has populist appeal," he said.

Bryce responded to Ryan's announcement Wednesday by trolling him on Twitter. The union ironworker tweeted a link to an application for an apprenticeship in the Ironworkers Local 8 union.

"Hey @SpeakerRyan, I'm a man of my word," he tweeted.

Nehlen, meanwhile, issued a statement wishing Ryan well in retirement and pledging to fight for border security and against bad trade deals.

With Ryan out of the race and Nehlen labeled a "white nationalist" because of several controversial statements he has made, however, it is a certainty he will have company in the GOP primary.

Possible contenders mentioned in local media reports include Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, University of Wisconsin Board of Regents member Bryan Steil, and state Sen. David Craig.

Republican Candidates Lack Ryan's History
Ostermeier said none of Ryan's replacements on the Republican ticket is likely to have the connection to voters that he built up over two decades in office.

"I do know Democrats who voted for Paul Ryan consistently over a period of time because they like him," he said.

In the current polarized political environment, Ostermeier said, voters are "more likely to see the ‘R' next to [the next candidate's] name than to see the individual."

Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), who heads up the party's efforts to elect Republicans to the House, downplayed the impact of the wave of retirements.

"Not all retirements are equal. You talked about Trey Gowdy [a Republican representative from South Carolina]. Trey Gowdy's retiring. You know, that's an R plus-30 seat," he told CNN. "The retirements that matter are the retirements in seats that might flip, and frankly, there are now six Republicans that are in seats that Hillary Clinton won that are retiring. But there are five Democrats in seats that Donald Trump won that are retiring. So retirements aren't quite a wash. They might slightly favor Democrats. But it's not a big change. I think it might be a seat or two."

Related: Paul Ryan Makes it Official — He's Out

Election handicappers, however, generally view the playing field as more tilted. Sabato's Crystal Ball, for instance, rates 13 Republican-held open sets as either toss-ups or favoring Democrats. That is more than half of what they need to win control of the House.

Meanwhile, Democrats are favored to win all of the open seats they currently control except for two — both of which are also rated toss-ups.

The one silver lining for the GOP in Ryan's retirement is that it might shift the focus to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Ostermeier said. With the next Republican House leader unknown, he said, Republicans can try to make the election about the unpopular Pelosi without having a counterpart for Democrats to aim at.

"It's conceivable that generic Republican could be more appealing than Democrat Pelosi," he said.

PoliZette senior writer Brendan Kirby can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter.

(photo credit, homepage image: Paul Ryan, CC BY-ND 2.0, by Bread for the World; photo credit, article image: Rep. Ryan and Members of Congressional Delegation Address the Media in TokyoCC BY-ND 2.0U.S. Embassy Tokyo)

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