Paul Ryan
WWS Reacts

WWS Reacts: Paul Ryan’s Retirement and the Republican Party

Apr 11, 2018
B. Rose Kelly
Woodrow Wilson School

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan announced he will not seek re-election in November, a move that’s caught some in the Republican party off guard.

We discussed the implications of Ryan’s retirement with Nolan McCarty, Susan Dod Brown Professor of Politics and Public Affairs and chair of Princeton University’s Department of Politics, and Brandice Canes-Wrone, Donald E. Stokes Professor of Public and International Affairs and Professor of Politics, both at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. 

McCarty studies U.S. politics, democratic political institutions and political game theory. He is the author and co-author of several books including “Political Bubbles: Financial Crises and the Failure of American Democracy.”

Q. Speaker Paul D. Ryan won’t seek re-election in November. Are you surprised by this? And what are the implications?

McCarty: There have been rumors that he’s wanted to leave for a long time. I’m not sure what to make of why it’s now and not later. He could have just decided it was the right time, and that it would be irresponsible to run for re-election. I assumed he would run for re-election and step away quickly. But you know, once it becomes obvious that’s what you’re doing, there’s really no sense in staying around.

It’ll be interesting to see what effect Ryan’s announcement will have on the relationship between the House and the Trump administration over the next several months. I don’t think Ryan has the incentive to go full on (Jeff) Flake about this. But I also think he may be a little more reserved in throwing the weight of the speakership behind certain things the administration wants. That’ll certainly raise tensions, which would hurt the Republican party in the upcoming election.

Canes-Wrone: There had been rumors for weeks that it might happen, but no, I didn't wake up this morning thinking this would be a headline. It signals a lack of enthusiasm for continuing in a leadership role. Certainly, it suggests a high likelihood of House turnover, but other House speakers have stayed on, such as Nancy Pelosi, to serve in the minority. My sense is that Ryan is unenthused about being either the Speaker or a minority leader during a Trump administration. Moreover, were he to resign after the election, the winner of the 2018 Wisconsin governor's race would make the call on the timing of a special election. By leaving now, Ryan enables the Republican party to plan ahead on how best to keep the seat.

Q. On that note, how will this affect midterm elections, especially for Republicans?

McCarty: There’s a direct effect in that his district is vulnerable and is not a very Republican district. It’s another seat, another retirement, but it puts the House more at risk. I think there’s some indirect effects that people have noted all morning. Ryan is a good fundraiser for the party. They are going to need the money, and it’s not clear whether wealthy people will just turn checks over to people leaving office. Of course, I don’t know if him announcing his retirement now or in December makes much of a difference.

Canes-Wrone: Like Nolan said, some of the donor base will be disappointed. These are the Republicans that prefer a Ryan Republican party to a Trump one. As a result, Republican fundraising efforts may not be as strong. 

Q. Any thoughts on who might succeed Ryan? It might be too early to tell.

McCarty: I don’t think that’s clear. That’s going to be one of the biggest challenges Republicans face. He was literally the only compromise between the multitude of factions in the Republican party, and it’s not clear they have someone equally acceptable to all sides. Next in line would be Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy as the odds-on favorite. But it’s not clear he can do as good of a job as Ryan did in terms of mediating all of the conflict.

Canes-Wrone: The two likeliest contenders are House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Majority Whip Steve Scalise. Scalise is viewed as a more reliable conservative but McCarthy has a strong relationship with Trump and Pence. Moreover, as the current no. two, McCarthy would seem to be the heir apparent. 

WWS Reacts is a series of interviews with Woodrow Wilson School experts addressing current events.