“Do you plan to vote against Paul D. Ryan continuing his speakership?”
It was an easy-sounding question, asked at the end of a friendly Republican candidate forum at Minnesota’s state fair. To the pleasant surprise of Democrats, four of five Republicans seeking to flip House seats next year declined to support the speaker of the House, offering instead criticisms of Paul D. Ryan’s leadership.
“I think he’s going in the wrong direction,” said state Rep. Tim Miller.
“I would prefer someone else,” said commercial pilot Tim Hughes.
“We’ll see who runs for speaker,” said businessman Jim Hagedorn.
“He might not even run for speaker,” said St. Louis County Commissioner Pete Stauber.
Republicans, who plan to make the unpopularity of House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi a key campaign issue in the 2018 midterms, remain confident that the “speaker” question breaks their way. Asked about the Minnesota video, which was recorded on Monday, National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Jesse Hunt pointed out (twice) that Pelosi’s negative image helped Republicans win 2017’s four competitive special elections. A Ryan-allied super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, also plowed millions of dollars into three of those races.
“Nancy Pelosi’s team appears quite concerned about her current political standing – but who can blame them after four more losses under their belt?” asked Hunt. “Speaker Ryan has been instrumental in the passage of key House legislative items and the successful election of four new Republican members in 2017. We’re thankful for his leadership.”
Public polling, however, has seen Ryan’s favorable rating and approval rating tumble since the start of the Trump presidency. According to HuffPost’s poll tracker, Ryan’s approval rating was barely underwater, 35/41, the week of Trump’s inauguration. Today, it’s underwater by close to 20 points, 30/49; Pelosi’s rating is 29/49. A Bloomberg poll, conducted shortly before the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act failed in the Senate, found 61 percent of Republican voters approving of Ryan, with every other voting bloc viewing him negatively.
“His numbers are no better than mine,” Pelosi said after Democrats lost a special election in Georgia’s 6th District. “The difference is we don’t engage in the politics of personal destruction.”
Republicans remain confident that Pelosi, who after Hillary Clinton’s defeat has become the focus of most negative conservative ads, is far more polarizing than Ryan. The Democrats’ 2018 House map, skewed by gerrymandering in key Rust Belt states and parts of the south, sets up races in suburbs where Pelosi remains toxic.
But the reluctance on display in Minnesota came from candidates running in three of the cycle’s 11 Trump/Democrat districts – places where 2016 voters broke Republican for president, but sent a Democrat back to Congress. Trump’s surge among rural white voters nearly took out Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), whose 1st District in the southern part of the state backed Barack Obama by 1.4 points, then backed Trump by 14.9 points.
Hagedorn, who was nearly elected by that swing, was among the candidates who refused to take a stand on Ryan this week. Saying he did not want to alienate any potential supporters, even “Washington Republicans,” he suggested that it was too early to ask candidates who they’d back for speaker.
“In the next Congress, we hopefully hold our majority, and there will be an election a week or two after that election,” he said. “We’ll see who runs for speaker. Until then, you have to be very cautious about what you do. A lot can happen in a year in a half.”
Walz’s decision to run for governor in 2018 opened up his House seat, and the NRCC has backed Hagedorn over a crowded field of Democrats. The other candidates on the stage in Minnesota are fighting to face Democratic incumbents in the 7th and 8th districts, which Trump won by 30.8 and 15.6 points.
Only one of those candidates, trucking company owner and 7th District hopeful Matt Prosch, said he would back Ryan for speaker. His rivals, Hughes and Miller, veered between criticism of Ryan and hope that he could redeem himself.
“We’ve got to have leadership that ensures we do the will of the people,” said Miller. “Whoever that is, I’d support that.” Hughes, who lost to incumbent Rep. Collin C. Peterson (D-Minn.) in 2016, suggested that he was “not impressed” with Ryan and would see who else ran.
Stauber, who has no primary challenger as he seeks to defeat Rep. Rick Nolan (D-Minn.) was just as lukewarm about Ryan. “When I’m in Congress, I’ll let you know, because people can change their views, change their ways,” he said. “People have the ability to change, and I hope he does.”
Answers like that could come back to haunt Republican candidates. In 2016, the CLF and the affiliated American Action Network spent $4.8 million on advertising against Nolan, a resilient campaigner who held on by just 2,072 votes. This year, as the CLF has focused on defending incumbents, it’s made clear that Republicans who buck Ryan won’t get help. That was demonstrated first when Rep. David Young’s (R-Iowa) initial opposition to the ACA repeal effort ended the CLF’s investment in his district.
“Our mission is to ensure that Paul D. Ryan remains speaker after 2018,” said CLF executive director Corry Bliss. “Obviously in allocating resources to accomplish that goal, CLF will prioritize friends and family first.”