Even as much of Capitol Hill was shocked and reeling from the election of Donald Trump as America’s 45th president, Speaker Paul Ryan woke up Wednesday with an enthusiasm that his staff had not seen in some time.
Yes, the Republican Party had nominated and voters had elected a candidate who, by Ryan’s own admission, had used racist rhetoric on the campaign trail, someone who Ryan never fully backed, even into the last week of the campaign. But now, Ryan felt, Capitol Hill Republicans would have a chance to remake the country in the image they have been pushing for years, and so Ryan was excited, according to staff.
And, after all, he would be keeping his job.
According to conventional wisdom, Nov. 9 was supposed to usher in a new Democratic president, a possibly divided Congress, and the same old political gridlock. Ryan’s team fully expected a losing Trump and disaffected conservatives coming for the speaker’s job with knives out—and they were unsure that he could withstand the pressure to resign.
Now, while almost everything else about a Trump presidency remains up in the air, the one thing that seems predictable is that—with internal party elections on tap Tuesday—the House Republican leadership team will almost certainly retain its jobs for the 115th Congress.
It is clear now that despite his misgivings about the president-elect, Ryan has thrown his lot in with Trump. In a pitch to his GOP colleagues asking them to support his bid for the speakership, Ryan borrowed from Trump’s winning tagline, “Make America Great Again.”
“I am running for re-election so that we can continue what we have started and make 2017 a year of action. I ask for your vote, and I ask for your support at the start of this great undertaking,” he wrote. “If we go for it—if we go big and go bold—we can make America so great that it offers our children even more than it offers us.”
At Tuesday’s closed-door elections, GOP leaders need only a simple majority of their roughly 240 members to keep their seats. As a result, even if a protest candidate emerges from the ranks of the House conservatives, it is unlikely that Ryan or any of his team will face a real threat. Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Majority Whip Steve Scalise, GOP Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, and Republican Policy Committee Chairman Luke Messer all look poised to cruise to reelection. Further down the ticket, Rep. Jason Smith is running unopposed to be GOP Conference secretary.
The one contested race is for conference vice chairman, pitting Rep. Doug Collins against outgoing Republican Study Committee Chairman Bill Flores. Collins is well-liked among his colleagues, and sources familiar with his campaign said they feel good about his vote count. But Flores has a natural constituency in 20-plus fellow Texas Republicans, fellow members of the Republican Study Committee, and those who feel that adding a Hispanic member to the leadership table could be advantageous.
In another surprising twist, it is House Democrats who are now facing leadership angst. Late into the election, leaders started bringing up the possibility of not just winning the presidency, but perhaps even the House. Instead, they have gained just gained six seats (a few races remain unresolved), and some frustrated members are encouraging a challenge to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Rep. Tim Ryan, who represents a Rust Belt district in Ohio, is reportedly considering challenging Pelosi, and a group of members sent a letter to the leader asking that the leadership elections that are set for Thursday be postponed so Democrats can have more time to deliberate.
The disgruntled members are looking for a change to the top three leaders, not just because they have presided over the Democratic Caucus for years, but also because the members feel that their public message has become stale and, as a result, has not been effectively delivered to much of the American public.
Still, a challenge to Pelosi is a risky gambit. Any member who does so risks being ostracized if he or she loses, and now has just three days to prove to colleagues that a challenge would not simply be for protest’s sake, but that he or she can be more effective on the legislative and fundraising front than Pelosi.
One younger member said that perhaps the way to sway leadership would be to place fresh faces in some of the lower-rung leadership positions, instead of trying to depose those at the top. The Democratic Caucus vice chairmanship is up for grabs, for instance, as are the cochair positions of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee and the top spot at the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee.