Paul Ryan’s announcement Wednesday that he won’t run for re-election shook Wisconsin politics and leaves a vacancy for voters to fill in the upcoming primary and general elections.
The new congressman, or woman, will start at the bottom in the next Congress, far from the heights where the Janesville native sits as speaker of the House of Representatives, second in line of succession to the presidency.
Ryan emphasized he will continue pushing legislation and working for the re-election of his Republican colleagues as he finishes his 10th two-year term, which ends Jan. 3, 2019. And then?
Ryan did not respond to a Gazette request for an interview, but CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Ryan on Wednesday afternoon whether he will consider higher office.
The 48-year-old responded, “I’m not going to run for president. That’s not my plan. I’m always going to advocate for the causes I have. ... No plans to run for anything, and I really don’t think I’ll change my mind.”
But Gov. Scott Walker issued a statement hinting at things to come: “While Paul leaves behind a far-reaching, reform-minded legacy and a long list of achievements in Congress, I believe this is just the beginning for him.”
Ryan ran for vice president in 2012. Observers have long speculated he would seek the presidency someday.
Former Gov. Tommy Thompson also suggested a political future for Ryan: “I will forever remain optimistic that Paul Ryan’s retirement from Congress constitutes a break and not an exodus, as he has more than proven there’s always a place for someone with his intellect and passion for policy in the public arena.”
Ryan throughout the day pointed to his wife and three teen-age children as a major reason for his decision, saying he has been in Congress since before his kids born and does not want to continue be a “weekend dad.”
Longtime political observer Stan Milam, who has spent more time with Ryan than any other local news reporter, said he believes that statement to be sincere.
Milam, now of Big Radio, said statements by Democrats suggesting that Ryan was running away from a fight are wrong and missed an opportunity to be gracious and congratulate Ryan on his career.
“I don’t believe for a minute (candidate) Randy Bryce, (U.S. Rep.) Mark Pocan or anybody else could run him out of office,” Milam said. “If he wanted to run for re-election, he would have, regardless of who his opponents may be, and I believe he would’ve been successful.”
Two Democrats have been running for the nomination to take on Ryan since last year, and several Republicans are challenging Ryan for the Republican nomination.
But political observers suggested several Republican heavy-hitters who live in the 1st Congressional District might throw their hats in, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and party activist Bryan Steil of Janesville.
Steil issued a statement saying he has received calls urging him to run and is giving the possibility “serious consideration.”
Milam noted Steil said in 2012 that he would consider running for Congress if Ryan won his race for vice president.
“Republicans have begged (Steil) for years to run for something, and I think it would be hard for him to turn this down,” Milam said.
Milam said Vos is in a safe district and is likely to preside over another Republican-dominated Assembly next year, so he might not want to give that up to run for Congress.
Ryan has no plans to endorse in the GOP primary, said Kevin Seifert, executive director of Team Ryan, Ryan’s political organization, in a statement.
“Speaker Ryan is committed to making sure that a Republican represents Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District in the House of Representatives come November,” Seifert said.
Team Ryan can back up that commitment with tens of millions of dollars.
“There are many qualified conservatives in southern Wisconsin, and Speaker Ryan and his team will work tirelessly so Republicans keep this seat,” Seifert said.
Time is short for new candidates, but it’s sufficient to put together a campaign and get registered for the Aug. 14 primary ballot, said Barry Burden, UW-Madison political scientist.
New Republican candidates would have to raise money quickly to match the fundraising of Democrats Cathy Myers of Janesville and Bryce of Caledonia, who have been fundraising for months.
Candidates must file with the state Elections Commission by June 1. The filing must include nominating petitions with at least 1,000 signatures. They can start collecting those signatures Sunday.
Bryce’s campaign sent a statement touting his chances and saying Ryan “decided to quit today rather than face Randy Bryce and the voters.”
“Randy has raised $4.75 million to date, with 75 percent of those donations coming in small-dollar increments of $200 or less. That support allowed the campaign to begin airing TV ads in the district at the beginning of March, so voters are already becoming familiar with Randy’s story,” Bryce’s statement reads.
“The campaign is also building a strong grassroots field program,” Bryce’s statement continues. “Over 140 county captains have already been trained to serve as volunteer leaders in their areas.”
Myers’ statement included this:“Paul Ryan is running away from the harm his policies have caused our neighbors in Wisconsin’s 1st District and working families nationwide. I am the candidate who will replace him because we need a teacher in Congress who can educate and mobilize voters to reverse the damage Paul Ryan has done to the middle class over his two decades in office.”
Myers continued: “Paul Ryan’s inaction on commonsense, bipartisan legislation to protect women, students and DREAMers is indefensible. I am prepared to lead where Paul Ryan has failed to act.”
Seifert said of Myers and Bryce: “Democrats’ claims that they had anything to do with Paul Ryan’s decision are not just laughable, but undercut by the numbers. In reality, Speaker Ryan was in perfect shape to be re-elected by a significant margin, as he has been for the past 20 years. Polling this year has consistently shown the speaker winning re-election by 20 points, and he is sitting on one of the biggest war chests in the country.
“People in this district know and like Paul Ryan,” Seifert continued. “And of course Randy Bryce and Cathy Myers’ liberal, progressive priorities are out of step with Wisconsinites, and that will become clear in the months ahead. Take a close look at either of them as candidates, and it’s obvious they wouldn’t stand a chance against him.”
Ryan’s campaign issued an opinion piece, repeating his family motivations and thanking constituents for their support over the years.
“Regardless of my title, in every circumstance, I have aimed to do my best, to be on target,” Ryan wrote. “I did not always hit the bull’s-eye. My words didn’t always match my intentions. But I tried to learn from my mistakes and listen to others. Through it all, serving you was my objective, and I’ll continue to work tirelessly for you until my term ends.
“I still believe America’s best days are ahead of her,” Ryan wrote. “We are all blessed to live in a nation in which our potential is only limited by our God-given abilities and own effort.”
The announcement came after weeks of speculation that Ryan would step down as speaker or not run again.
Two Republicans, Nick Polce of Lake Geneva and Paul Nehlen of the town of Delavan, have been running for the GOP nomination against Ryan.
Nehlen, who has raised $160,555, sent a polite statement noting policy differences on trade and Nehlen’s advocacy for a border wall.
But Seifert bashed Nehlen, who is seen in many quarters as an anti-Semitic white nationalist.
“There are many qualified conservatives who would be effective representatives for Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District, and Paul Nehlen isn’t one of them,” Seifert said in his Team Ryan statement. “His bigoted rhetoric and his reprehensible statements should disqualify him from holding any public office, and we are confident voters in southern Wisconsin feel the same way.”
Polce expressed hope that Ryan’s exit will lead to an influx of money for his campaign, which has yet to surpass $30,000.
Polce said he differs with Ryan mainly on money matters, saying he opposed the omnibus spending bills in 2015 and this year that greatly increased spending.
Polce said his message includes individual freedom, term limits and putting the people first.
Local Republican activists expressed regret they’ll be losing a man who held the 1st District for almost 20 years.
“It is bitter for me because I will miss his calm, level-headed approach to problem-solving, his friendly demeanor, and his ability to rise above the fray to lead the way,” said Chris Goebel, chairman of the Republican Party of Walworth County.
“His announcement is sweet at the same time in a most simple, idealistic way,” Goebel said. “What Paul has done is at the core of what we are as a nation, a constitutional republic. Paul served us for 20 years and now passes on the baton.”
Just who gets that baton is a question high on the minds of Republicans, said Andrew Iverson, chairman of the Rock County Republican Party.
“We don’t want a blue district, and we don’t want Randy Bryce as our congressman because he is hand-picked by Washington, D.C., liberal elitists,” Iverson said.
Iverson said he’s not counting out the other Democrat in the running, Cathy Myers: “The Democratic primary will get messier and more interesting, quite frankly, with this latest announcement.”
“He’s really has been a leader that we can all be proud of,” Iverson said of Ryan.
Iverson sees Ryan’s two biggest accomplishments as his reform of the tax code and being part of the Republican team that helped lure manufacturer Foxconn to build a massive factory in the district, which could affect the local economy for years to come.
The Democratic National Committee issued a statement, saying Ryan’s announcement is “an indictment” of failed Republican leadership.
“Since Donald Trump took office, 46 Republicans have resigned or made retirement plans, and Democrats have flipped another 39 state legislative seats from red to blue across the country,” the DNC statement says. “The American people are hungry for Democratic leadership ... As Paul Ryan heads for the exit, Democrats are fighting to make sure that his Republican colleagues join him in retirement come November.”
More Ryan bashing came from Mary Jonker, chairwoman of the 1st District Democratic Party: “Paul Ryan has finally realized what those of us in Wisconsin’s 1st District have long known: He is woefully out of touch with the working-class values that makes our district great.
“From mocking people who have fallen on hard times, to longing to privatize Social Security and Medicare, and passing tax cuts that only benefit the precious few, Paul Ryan’s years of harming those in Wisconsin are finally over,” Jonker continued.
“What remains to be seen is who his hand-picked, Trump-approved Republican will be. We are certain, however, that this person will seek to take Wisconsin down the same wrong path as Speaker Ryan and President Trump,” Jonker’s statement says.
Brad Courtney, chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, called Ryan “a passionate advocate for Wisconsin and a dedicated public servant for two decades. A tireless fighter for conservative principles, Paul was an ideas guy who was always fighting for hard-working Wisconsin families.
“From the bottom of my heart, I want to thank Paul for everything he has done for Wisconsin and the Republican Party,” Courtney continued. “Wisconsin Republicans are committed to keeping this congressional seat, and I am confident that our eventual nominee will uphold Paul Ryan’s legacy of principled, conservative leadership.”
Nationally, Ryan’s decision “sends a really strong signal to other Republicans around country that this is going to be a difficult year electorally and they will be pretty much on their own,” political scientist Burden said.
Burden noted Ryan has a lot of money to distribute, however. Team Ryan reported this week it had raised $11.1 million for his joint fundraising committee in the first quarter of 2018, bringing his total for the cycle to roughly $54 million.
The Team Ryan money is separate from his campaign fund, which has $10.6 million cash on hand at last report.
The Federal Elections Commission said after a federal officeholder retires, he or she can use campaign money to pay relocation and other campaign expenses and also can donate it to charity, transfer it to any national, state or local political party committee or donate it to state and local candidates.