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Paul Ryan won’t seek reelection, signaling that GOP majority in House is in peril

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.

WASHINGTON — Speaker Paul Ryan announced Wednesday that he will not seek re-election in November, ending a brief stint atop the House and signaling the peril that the Republican majority faces in the midterm elections.

Ryan said he will serve until the end of this Congress in January, which will mark 20 years in Congress. He insisted he will be “leaving this majority in good hands with what I believe is a very bright future.”

But his retirement, at age 48, is sure to kick off a succession battle for the leadership of the House Republican Conference, likely between the House majority leader, Kevin McCarthy of California, and the House majority whip, Steve Scalise of Louisiana.

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And it could also trigger another wave of retirements among Republicans not eager to face angry voters in the fall and taking their cue from Ryan.

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As if on cue, Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., announced his retirement an hour after Ryan.

Ryan’s intentions were first reported by Axios.

Ryan’s decision to quit caught many in the party by surprise. He had just hosted a donor retreat last week in Texas, and most officials believed he would not leave until after November.

Explaining his decision to his Republican colleagues Wednesday morning at a meeting in the Capitol, a subdued Ryan said he wanted to spend more time with his children, who live in the same town where the speaker grew up.

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He pledged that he would help fellow Republicans extensively in the 2018 campaign and said he would continue raising money at a powerful pace, according to two lawmakers in the room. Ryan has become the party’s most important fundraiser in the House, and Republicans have been counting on him to help them collect and spend tens of millions of dollars defending their majority this fall.

He pointed to the recently enacted overhaul of the tax code and increased military spending as his signal accomplishments.

Growing emotional at points, Ryan said family considerations weighed heavily on his retirement, explaining that his daughter was 13 when he became speaker and he did not want to be a remote figure in her teenage years.

“The truth is, it is easy for it to take over everything in your life and you can’t just let that happen because there are other things in life that can be fleeting as well: Namely your time as a husband and a father,” he told reporters.

But he has also been forced to answer for a constant stream of provocations and slights from President Donald Trump, and his retirement announcement was no exception. Asked what should be done if the president has the special counsel, Robert Mueller, fired, he answered, “I have no reason to believe that is going to happen. I’ve been talking to people in the White House about it.”

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Rep. Charlie Dent, a moderate Republican from Pennsylvania who is also retiring, noted the difficulty of Ryan’s position.

“We can all read between the lines,” Dent said. “This is not an easy administration to be dealing with.”

Ryan has been publicly noncommittal for months about running for re-election, repeating a formulation that he was not going anywhere anytime soon. At the retreat in Austin, Texas, Ryan was opaque about his plans for 2018, saying that he and his wife, Janna, would confer in the coming weeks to make a decision, according to two people who attended the gathering.

But some in the audience found that unconvincing, and some party strategists indicated that his refusal to commit to running again was offering an excuse to donors to withhold from giving to House campaign efforts.

Ryan said he had considered the effect his retirement would have on other lawmakers seeking re-election but said his decision to retire was not based on signs of a growing Democratic wave.

“If we do our job, as we are, we are going to be fine as a majority,” he said.

Back in his Southeastern Wisconsin district, Ryan was facing a spirited challenge from two Democrats, Randy Bryce, better known by his Twitter handle, “Iron Stache,” and a schoolteacher, Cathy Myers. On his right flank, an avowed anti-Semite, Paul Nehlen, was making another run at the Republican nomination — and earning a national following among white supremacists.

Ryan is by far the most prominent figure fleeing Congress in a long season of Republican retirements. More than 40 House Republicans are leaving the chamber to retire or seek other offices, including a number who have voiced concern about the 2018 elections and intense dissatisfaction with the state of Washington under Trump. Several others have resigned in personal scandals.

The exodus has further endangered Republicans’ already tenuous hold on Congress, creating open seats in states such as New Jersey and California that Republicans will struggle to hold. Republicans acknowledged Wednesday morning that Ryan’s seat will be far more vulnerable without the speaker on the ballot.

Trump offered well wishes on Twitter before a planned dinner with Republican congressional leaders at the White House on Wednesday evening.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader who longs to return to the speakership, was faint with her praise.

“The Speaker has been an avid advocate for his point of view and for the people of his district,” she said in a statement. “Despite our differences, I commend his steadfast commitment to our country.”

Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, urged Ryan to use his last months as speaker to work toward bipartisan compromises.

“With his newfound political freedom, I hope the speaker uses his remaining time in Congress to break free from the hard-right factions of his caucus that have kept Congress from getting real things done,” he said. “If he’s willing to reach across the aisle, he’ll find Democrats willing and eager to work with him.”

In the meantime, the scramble to succeed Ryan atop the Republican conference — if not the House majority — could prove intense. McCarthy made a run at the speakership after then-Rep. John Boehner of Ohio announced his retirement, but fell flat. Scalise will be a sentimental favorite after surviving a near-death shooting at a congressional baseball practice. But his ascent would signal another Republican turn to the right.

“I think everybody will start jockeying for position immediately,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., the chairman of the conservative Freedom Caucus. “They won’t wait for nine months.”

The speaker made the decision over the spring congressional recess, a period during which he took his family on a vacation to Austria. Ryan has been frustrated with the seemingly unending tensions in his conference between conservative hard-liners and mainstream Republicans and the unpredictable Trump, whose recent tilt toward imposing tariffs and inviting a trade war is anathema to the free market-oriented speaker.

Ryan, who told his staff about his decision at an early-morning meeting, indicated to advisers that he knows retiring will create political difficulties for the party but that he felt he could not in good conscience commit to another full two-year term.

Yet that is of little comfort to those Republicans on the ballot this year who were expecting Ryan to campaign with lawmakers across the country. Even though he vowed to keep fulfilling his political responsibilities, he will not be nearly the draw as a lame duck. And with the filing period yet to pass in 19 states, it is now virtually impossible for Ryan to convince other lawmakers that they must run again.

“This is the nightmare scenario,” said former Rep. Thomas M. Davis, a Virginia Republican. “Everybody figured he’d just hang in there till after the election.”