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.