Speaker Paul Ryan took a gamble this week, betting that distancing himself from Donald Trump could save vulnerable House seats and the Republican congressional majority.
But in taking on that risk, Ryan could lose it all, including his own speakership.
Ryan is running the gauntlet between now and January, and the right combination of House losses, a vindictive Trump, and a legislative cramdown could cost Ryan the gavel.
“If we lose significant seats, Ryan’s speakership is at risk,” said one Trump-supporting member, who said he understands why Ryan said what he said, but noted that other colleagues are not so generous.
“He’s trying to keep everybody together, and he had to say something, but what he said alienated a good deal of members,” the member said, speaking anonymously to discuss internal conference dynamics frankly. “It could backfire on him, there’s no question it could backfire on him. Even if he maintains a big majority, it could backfire on him.”
First and foremost, Trump is gunning for Ryan. The GOP nominee may go down in November, but he has made it clear that if he does, he’s taking Ryan with him.
In a series of tweets posted Tuesday afternoon, Trump railed against Ryan’s “weak and ineffective” leadership and noted that Ryan’s attempt to distance himself from Trump during a GOP conference call Monday was met with rebuke from some members.
“It is hard to do well when Paul Ryan and others give zero support!” Trump continued.
Trump’s charge is clear: If he loses—badly or, worse still, in a close election—it will be Ryan and uncooperative GOP leaders who are to blame for not doing more to help him. The recipient of that message is clear as well: Trump’s populist supporters, the ones who shouted at Ryan at a Wisconsin rally after he disinvited Trump and who routinely help reelect members of Congress in deep-red districts all around the country.
If Ryan continues to be Trump’s whipping boy, that makes the speakership elections in November and January a proxy battle. Trump has captured the GOP base and if he directs his ire toward Ryan, members will be politically hard-pressed to support him lest they lose their own jobs. Members could find themselves in effect voting for Trump twice, once at the polls on Nov. 8 and once again on the House floor when they cast a vote against Ryan for speaker.
Secondly, Republicans will lose House seats. How many remains to be seen, and depends largely on whether Trump can dig himself out of an electoral hole and how many more embarrassing remarks surface before November.
There is not much congressional polling since Trump’s hot-mic comments degrading women before an “Access Hollywood” segment surfaced last week. But NRCC Chairman Greg Walden noted on the Monday conference call that generic Republicans suffered in internal polls taken after Trump disparaged former Miss Universe Alicia Machado.
Losing seats could hurt Ryan, not just because a leader must win to justify his own leadership, but also because it makes winning the speakership itself harder. Unlike every other House leadership election, in which a simple majority of Republicans can secure victory, the speakership must be won on the floor by a vote of the whole House. If Republicans lose 20 seats, for instance, only 10 or so Republicans would have to buck Ryan on the House floor to force a second ballot. Nine members voted for someone other than Ryan during his first speakership election last year.
Even more problematic for Ryan is that it is not just House Freedom Caucus members who spoke up against him. Members like Reps. Billy Long, Dana Rohrabacher, and Tom McClintock took issue with Ryan’s posture on the conference call, and if they hold Ryan to account for a Trump loss, it makes his margin of error ever smaller.
“It’s hard to say at this stage,” McClintock said, when asked whether Ryan will be blamed for a Trump loss. “It will be a lot easier to answer your questions four weeks from now.”
To be sure, Ryan’s team recognizes the challenge and is doing all it can ahead of the election to maintain his support. He has a lot going for him in that regard. While his support for Trump may be low, his support for House candidates is more in the range of tens of millions of dollars. He also remains well-liked among his colleagues for his communicative leadership style.
That is not to mention that Ryan’s soft disavowal of Trump on Monday’s conference call was largely for the benefit of endangered candidates. Ryan did himself no favors by distancing himself from Trump, but if many House members win reelection, they can partially thank Ryan for declining to put a target on their backs by appearing on stage with Trump. And perhaps more importantly than anything, Ryan really has no competent challenger for the speakership.
But a number of other trends are pointing toward a weaker grasp on the gavel.
For instance, Ryan has a Freedom Caucus problem too. More so than anything to do with Trump, members of the caucus are looking at the lame-duck session as a test for Ryan. If he passes an omnibus appropriations bills without prized legislative add-ons or any other big legislation during the winter session, those members have been explicit in saying they would turn on him.
Finally, the Better Way agenda is in rough shape and that could spell trouble for Ryan. He admitted as much when he told members on the conference call that he would turn his attention to ensuring that Hillary Clinton doesn’t have an unrestrained presidency.
Ryan has been pitched as an ideas speaker and has shown that he can work with Democrats when necessary. If Clinton wins, however, the agenda has no chance of being enacted. Republicans may be in the mood for a more pugilistic leader to counter Clinton.
Ryan’s agenda rises and falls with Trump. He should hope his speakership does not as well.