House Speaker Paul Ryan’s abandonment of Donald Trump is aimed at protecting Republican control of the House. But it may test his hold on his own job and his long-term ambitions.
Ryan’s announcement this week that he won’t defend his party’s volatile presidential nominee and that GOP candidates should choose their own paths to victory—with or without Trump—has impelled some Republicans to suggest they may not back his re-election as speaker.
“Given the stakes of this election, if Paul Ryan isn’t for Trump, then I’m not for Paul Ryan,” Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., said Wednesday on Twitter.
Assuming Republicans remain in control of the House after November’s elections—which no longer seems assured—Ryan, R-Wis., may need every GOP vote he can get to keep his post. That means he can’t afford to let this week’s trickle of defiant Republican lawmakers grow much larger.
Ryan, 46, was his party’s 2012 vice presidential candidate and many think he could run for the GOP presidential nomination in 2020 or beyond. Losing an election for the speakership could be a blow to any loftier political ambitions.
Ryan’s tactic has cheered many GOP lawmakers nervous that Trump’s flagging candidacy could cost them their jobs. But it has infuriated other Republicans and conservatives in and out of Congress, especially Trump’s die-hard backers, who consider Ryan’s decision a betrayal that will weaken Trump’s chances of winning.
“I suspect whatever he said would be a no-win for unanimity” among Republicans, former Rep. Tom Reynolds, R-N.Y., who led the House GOP’s campaign organization a decade ago, said Wednesday. “He’s walking on a tightrope, like any speaker up for re-election.”
On Monday, Ryan told House Republicans in a conference call that he will spend the remaining weeks until Election Day working to keep GOP control of his chamber, and do nothing to help Trump. That call came after the revelation of a 2005 video showing Trump making crude remarks about forcing himself physically on women.
Trump has since assailed Ryan with a bombardment of tweets and remarks. He said Wednesday while campaigning in Ocala, Florida, that Ryan and other Republicans are involved in a “sinister deal” against him, but offered no evidence.
Bridenstine is a conservative and a member of the House Freedom Caucus, which often bucks leadership. But he backed Ryan when the House elected him speaker last October.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., who also supported Ryan then, hinted in an interview with The Associated Press that he might not favor keeping Ryan in the House’s top job.
“I never doubted he should be speaker. However, if he can’t prevent himself from panicking and helping the enemy in a situation like this, well, then we’ll find out,” Rohrabacher said Monday.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said Ryan was under pressure from Republicans in deeply conservative districts where Trump is running strongly and from those from more moderate areas where the presidential candidate has struggled.
“His job is to get as many members of the Republican majority back as possible,” said King. “Those who are in red districts are going to win no matter what.”
AshLee Strong, Ryan’s spokeswoman, said Wednesday that he is “fighting to ensure we hold a strong majority next Congress, and he is always working to earn the respect and support of his colleagues.”
Ryan also moved onto a different subject, releasing a statement criticizing aides to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton for hacked emails containing critical comments about Catholics.
House Republicans meet after the November elections to select their nominee for speaker. Ryan would need 218 votes—a majority of the chamber’s 435 members—to become speaker when the full House votes in January.
There are currently 246 House Republicans, plus a vacant seat they seem likely to retain.
But that number will likely shrink after Election Day, with GOP moderates among the likeliest to lose. That means a greater proportion of conservatives, some of whom are hostile to established GOP leaders, and indicates that Ryan may not be able to afford losing much support.
Ryan succeeded former Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who retired last October after it became clear that opposition from conservatives within his party’s caucus meant he did not have the votes to retain his job.