House Speaker Paul Ryan has been under fire from members of his own party after distancing himself from the GOP presidential nominee.

House Speaker Paul Ryan has been under fire from members of his own party after distancing himself from the GOP presidential nominee. Cliff Owen/AP

If Not Paul Ryan, Then Who?

The speaker has his foes. What he doesn’t have is a logical successor.

If not Paul Ry­an, then who?

That’s the ques­tion House Re­pub­lic­ans are once again ask­ing them­selves as they pre­pare to head in­to an ugly and dif­fi­cult lead­er­ship elec­tion fol­low­ing an equally ugly and dif­fi­cult pres­id­en­tial cam­paign.

The fact that the ques­tion has no clear an­swer is per­haps the single strongest sig­nal that the sit­ting speak­er, who has come un­der friendly fire since dis­tan­cing him­self from GOP pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee Don­ald Trump, will con­tin­ue to lead the House Re­pub­lic­an Con­fer­ence next year des­pite an in­tense me­dia fo­cus on the idea that con­ser­vat­ives might oust him.

“This is go­ing to take a while to sort it­self out,” said one lead­er­ship-aligned House Re­pub­lic­an, speak­ing on back­ground to dis­cuss in­tern­al con­fer­ence dy­nam­ics. “That said, hope­fully cool­er heads pre­vail and we just coast this in­to the har­bor, be­cause I see no good op­tions past Paul.”

After then-Speak­er John Boehner ab­ruptly an­nounced his resig­na­tion in Septem­ber 2015, Ry­an be­came the be­grudging com­prom­ise choice to lead the con­fer­ence. He was the only choice with the na­tion­al pro­file to con­test a Demo­crat­ic pres­id­ent and with the cre­den­tials to win sup­port across the es­tab­lish­ment-con­ser­vat­ive di­vide that has cleaved the Re­pub­lic­an Party.

In con­ver­sa­tions with mem­bers, names like Fin­an­cial Ser­vices Com­mit­tee Chair­man Jeb Hensarling or Budget Com­mit­tee Chair­man Tom Price came up as po­ten­tial re­place­ments for Ry­an with the same cre­den­tials to win votes across the GOP ideo­lo­gic­al di­vide. But the two chair­men are among Ry­an’s closest friends and ad­visers, so much so that Price even re­ferred to the three as “kindred souls.” It would be dif­fi­cult to en­vi­sion a scen­ario in which one of the two chal­lenges Ry­an, though per­haps one of them could run if Ry­an de­cides to step aside.

Oth­er con­fer­ence lead­ers would have a hard time win­ning broad sup­port. Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Kev­in Mc­Carthy tried to gain sup­port for the speak­er­ship after Boehner resigned, and al­though he is gen­er­ally liked, his ef­fort failed—in part be­cause he’s seen as more mod­er­ate and less ar­tic­u­late than Ry­an. Ma­jor­ity Whip Steve Scal­ise, mean­while, would be a con­tro­ver­sial choice, hav­ing ad­mit­ted giv­ing a speech to a white-su­prem­acist group years be­fore he came to Con­gress. Re­pub­lic­an Con­fer­ence Chair­wo­man Cathy Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers has shown no signs of fur­ther lead­er­ship am­bi­tion, hav­ing de­clined to run for whip when she had the chance.

Else­where in the con­fer­ence, mem­bers like Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form Chair­man Jason Chaf­fetz and Rep. Daniel Web­ster have offered them­selves up as com­prom­ise can­did­ates in the past, but neither was able to get more than a hand­ful of mem­bers, if that, to sup­port their can­did­a­cies. Web­ster has gone back to be­ing a back­bench­er, and Chaf­fetz has said he will be turn­ing his at­ten­tion to in­vest­ig­at­ing Hil­lary Clin­ton next year, should she win the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion.

Fox News host Sean Han­nity, who is close to Trump, has said he would like to see House Free­dom Caucus mem­bers Jim Jordan or Mark Mead­ows, or fel­low anti­es­tab­lish­ment Rep. Louie Gohmert chal­lenge Ry­an. But most mem­bers in­ter­viewed con­ceded that any Free­dom Caucus mem­ber would find a hard time gain­ing sup­port from mem­bers of the con­fer­ence writ large, many of whom view their tac­tics as an­arch­ic and coun­ter­pro­duct­ive.

Gohmert ran for speak­er last time around, gain­ing just three votes, in­clud­ing his own. Jordan has said re­peatedly he has no in­terest in be­ing speak­er, pre­fer­ring to work on the fringes to push lead­er­ship right­ward. Mead­ows, mean­while, said that neither he nor Jordan plan to run for the con­fer­ence’s top po­s­i­tion.

“I know that neither of us have any plans,” Mead­ows said.

Still, without even a full term un­der his belt and without a chal­lenger, Ry­an is be­ing tar­geted by some mem­bers. On is­sues like trade, im­mig­ra­tion re­form, and Trump’s char­ac­ter, Ry­an has be­come es­tranged from the nom­in­ee and his pop­u­list base. With Trump down in the polls, even sources close to Ry­an con­cede that mem­bers will likely be un­der pres­sure to vote against him for speak­er as re­tri­bu­tion for not fully sup­port­ing Trump.

That said, Ry­an spokes­wo­man Ash­Lee Strong noted the speak­er is keep­ing his eye on the elec­tions at hand for the time be­ing.

“Speak­er Ry­an has worked hard to uni­fy mem­bers be­hind con­ser­vat­ive ideas, but his only fo­cus un­til Nov. 8th is de­feat­ing Demo­crats and pro­tect­ing the House Re­pub­lic­an ma­jor­ity,” Strong said.

Ry­an’s chal­lenge in re­tain­ing the speak­er­ship is math­em­at­ic­al: Al­though he has the sup­port of prob­ably more than 200 mem­bers, the speak­er must be elec­ted by the whole House in Janu­ary, mean­ing he needs 218 votes to win. The House ma­jor­ity could be trimmed to as few as five seats next year. Last elec­tion, nine mem­bers voted against Ry­an, and he was more pop­u­lar then than he is now. If the Re­pub­lic­an ma­jor­ity is any­where close to 10 seats, Ry­an could have a hard time reach­ing the threshold.

There is also a lead­er­ship elec­tion in mid-Novem­ber, but Ry­an needs only a simple ma­jor­ity of 115th Con­gress Re­pub­lic­ans—per­haps as few as 110, de­pend­ing on the elec­tion res­ults— to win, a feat he will eas­ily achieve. Still, Rep. Dave Brat, who voted against Ry­an last year, said he would like to see those elec­tions post­poned so Re­pub­lic­ans can re­as­sess their op­tions after what looks to be a tu­mul­tu­ous elec­tion and give oth­er can­did­ates time to come for­ward. As an ad­ded bo­nus, po­ten­tial can­did­ates could be judged on wheth­er and how they pass le­gis­la­tion dur­ing the lame-duck ses­sion.

“The way it’s mani­fest­ing it­self is the broad­er ques­tion. It’s not about tak­ing out a cer­tain in­di­vidu­al; it’s about, ‘What’s Paul Ry­an’s po­s­i­tion on trade? What’s the po­s­i­tion on reg­u­lar or­der? … What’s his po­s­i­tion on im­mig­ra­tion?’” Brat said. “We need clar­ity on what can­did­ates are run­ning for lead­er­ship. What po­s­i­tion is he run­ning on now in light of what the Amer­ic­an people just said, and are there any oth­er can­did­ates run­ning? I don’t know.”

In that sense, a vote against Ry­an would not be about Ry­an as an in­di­vidu­al, but about find­ing a speak­er who more aligns with the qual­it­ies the Re­pub­lic­an base has shown it wants in a lead­er throughout the pres­id­en­tial cycle. The prob­lem for Ry­an’s de­tract­ors is that, in the House at least, such a speak­er can­did­ate does not ex­ist.