Moderate Republicans’ Threat: Paul Ryan for Speaker—or We Quit

Confusion over who the next speaker could be is throwing a wrench into Republicans’ plans to protect the party’s less conservative members, many of whom represent battleground districts.

Rep. Paul Ryan
AP Photo/Molly Riley
Oct. 19, 2015, 8 p.m.

Some Re­pub­lic­ans are so des­per­ate for Paul Ry­an to step up as the next speak­er of the House that they’ve star­ted talk­ing about re­tir­ing if he doesn’t, ac­cord­ing to a group that works on be­half of the House GOP’s more mod­er­ate mem­bers.

After Ry­an, those mem­bers have no second choice or even a second tier of po­ten­tial speak­ers, said Sarah Cham­ber­lain, chief op­er­at­ing and fin­an­cial of­ficer for the Re­pub­lic­an Main Street Part­ner­ship, a group that backs “main­stream” Re­pub­lic­ans and plans to spend mil­lions help­ing them pro­tect their House seats in 2016.

“De­pend­ing on how this shakes out, you may see some Main Street mem­bers re­tire,” Cham­ber­lain said in an in­ter­view. “… They’re hop­ing for a Ry­an-type can­did­ate. But if it’s not and it be­comes a huge mess, why be sit­ting here?”

Pennsylvania Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Charlie Dent said he’s cur­rently not talk­ing about re­tire­ment, but he said that between the speak­er’s race, the pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, and the nu­mer­ous battles that House Re­pub­lic­ans face, he may re­con­sider. If the House has an­oth­er fight over Planned Par­ent­hood and nears a shut­down on Dec. 11, little more than two months after House con­ser­vat­ives de­railed Kev­in Mc­Carthy’s bid for the speak­er­ship, Dent said he could change his mind.

“I’m pre­par­ing as if I’m run­ning for reelec­tion right now. But we’ll see what hap­pens. The next two months are go­ing to be pretty in­tense,” Dent said.

Dent and New York Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Peter King—who said he per­son­ally “would nev­er con­sider it be­cause you can’t give in”—also con­firmed that oth­er mem­bers have talked about re­tir­ing, de­pend­ing on the out­come of the speak­er’s race.

“A lot has been put on hold in both ways—people de­cid­ing to run again, or not run again,” King said.

So far, Ry­an has said he is not run­ning for speak­er, but mem­bers are try­ing to change his mind. If Ry­an con­tin­ues to de­cline and there’s even more un­cer­tainty about party lead­er­ship, it could be a drag on Re­pub­lic­an fun­drais­ing, Cham­ber­lain said.

“If Ry­an says next week that he’ll do it, I don’t think there’ll be a dip at all,” she said. “… If it’s not Ry­an, prob­ably there will be a small dip, un­til we fig­ure out who will come out as the head of the party.”

That’s es­pe­cially im­port­ant to Re­pub­lic­an groups like Main Street, which was star­ted by former Rep. Steve La­Tour­ette of Ohio and de­fends cent­rist Re­pub­lic­ans from primary- and gen­er­al-elec­tion chal­lenges. With a his­tor­ic­ally large ma­jor­ity, Re­pub­lic­ans find them­selves de­fend­ing a high num­ber of mod­er­ates who rep­res­ent dis­tricts that fa­vor Demo­crats, such as Rep. John Katko of New York and Rep. Robert Dold of Illinois.

To help de­fend that ma­jor­ity, the Re­pub­lic­an Main Street Part­ner­ship and the De­fend­ing Main Street su­per PAC will spend $10 mil­lion to $12 mil­lion this cycle, Cham­ber­lain said. But be­fore the groups can de­fend Re­pub­lic­an-held swing dis­tricts, they have to de­fend Re­pub­lic­ans against tea-party-aligned primary chal­lengers. The top tar­gets: Rep. Ren­ee Ellmers of North Car­o­lina and Rep. Dav­id Joyce of Ohio.

Ellmers, who has three primary chal­lengers, has be­come such a tar­get that she’s already been at the cen­ter of a minor ad war. Main Street’s non­profit group, Main Street Ad­vocacy, and the lead­er­ship-aligned Amer­ic­an Ac­tion Net­work ran ra­dio and TV ads, re­spect­ively, thank­ing Ellmers for vot­ing to fund the Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment earli­er this year. The Club for Growth, mean­while, ran TV ads against her for vot­ing to re­new the Ex­port-Im­port Bank.

Ellmers also found her­self in the na­tion­al news this month when Mc­Carthy dropped out of the speak­er’s race and na­tion­al me­dia out­lets, fol­low­ing con­ser­vat­ive news site Got­, re­por­ted on ru­mors of an af­fair between the two. Both law­makers denied the af­fair, and Cham­ber­lain said she’s con­fid­ent there’s noth­ing to it.

Still, there’s plenty of am­muni­tion for Ellmers’s op­pon­ents: Chath­am County GOP Chair­man Jim Duncan, former state GOP spokes­wo­man Kay Daly, and 2014 chal­lenger Frank Roche, whom Ellmers beat by 17 per­cent­age points. Roche an­nounced his can­did­acy soon after Ellmers led the Re­pub­lic­an charge against an an­ti­abor­tion bill that would ban late-term abor­tions for rape vic­tims un­less they re­por­ted the rape to law en­force­ment. Cham­ber­lain said she ex­pects that vote to be the biggest stick­ing point in Ellmers’s reelec­tion bid, but said Ellmers is “the most pro-life” of any Main Street mem­ber.

“Clearly she knows she’s vul­ner­able in that area and they’re go­ing to have to do something to pro­tect her on that,” said Sean Moser, a spokes­man for Duncan’s cam­paign.

Joyce, mean­while, faces the same chal­lenger he beat by 10 per­cent­age points in 2014: former state Rep. Matt Lynch. Lynch got in­to the race late last cycle—fil­ing his state­ment of can­did­acy in Feb­ru­ary 2014—but is more well-pre­pared this time, said spokes­wo­man Kar­en Quay.

Quay also said Joyce’s sup­port from uni­ons will be a cam­paign top­ic—and Main Street’s sup­port won’t help him there. The Re­pub­lic­an Main Street Part­ner­ship PAC has got­ten $63,750 from uni­ons this so year, nearly 10 per­cent of its total fun­drais­ing haul. The group has also brought in much more from labor-aligned trade as­so­ci­ations and non­profits.

“[T]hose dona­tions are not sur­pris­ing,” said Doug Sach­tleben, spokes­man for the Club for Growth, in an email. The Club has not made an en­dorse­ment yet in either race. “What es­tab­lish­ment Re­pub­lic­ans and labor uni­ons have in com­mon is the de­sire for big­ger gov­ern­ment.”

Main Street is happy to have the sup­port of the uni­ons that back mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­ans, Cham­ber­lain said, say­ing at­tacks over their ties are mis­guided.

“It’s the fire­fight­ers. It’s air traffic con­trol­lers. It’s air­line pi­lots. … We do not take money from the SEIU and some of those uni­ons” that heav­ily fa­vor Demo­crats, she said. “You’re go­ing to see more uni­on money in there this cycle. And as a Re­pub­lic­an, I think we should be wel­com­ing (that).”

Main Street may have a third high-pro­file primary brew­ing in New York, where Rep. Richard Hanna is likely to face an­oth­er re­peat chal­lenger, state As­semb­ly­wo­man Claudia Ten­ney, Cham­ber­lain said. Hanna beat Ten­ney by 7 per­cent­age points in 2014 but hasn’t en­deared him­self to party mem­bers lately: Last week, Hanna said in a ra­dio in­ter­view that Kev­in Mc­Carthy’s gaffe on the House Se­lect Com­mit­tee on Benghazi was more than just a slip of the tongue.

“There was a big part of this in­vest­ig­a­tion that was de­signed to go after people and an in­di­vidu­al, Hil­lary Clin­ton,” he said.

Hanna rep­res­ents a mod­er­ate dis­trict in up­state New York and has equally cent­rist polit­ics: His sup­port for same-sex mar­riage was a ma­jor top­ic in his 2014 primary, and Cham­ber­lain said his abor­tion-rights stances will prob­ably be the sub­ject of at­tacks.

“I don’t use the word ‘mod­er­ate,’ but if you were to use the word ‘mod­er­ate,’ Richard Hanna is the poster child for ‘mod­er­ate,’” she said.

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