- U.S. House speaker could face challenge from Trump backers
- Republicans likely to have a slimmer House majority next year
House Speaker Paul Ryan will probably be able to survive Donald Trump’s presidential bid with his job intact. But it may be at the cost of his own ambitions for 2020.
Ryan’s anguished on-again, off-again support of Trump has left him in no-man’s land inside the Republican Party -- tainted by his endorsement of the nominee while facing a possible revolt by Trump backers for having largely abandoned him.
Ryan is likely to withstand any attempt by restive House Republicans to oust him as speaker next year, but Trump’s attacks on Ryan may have done lasting damage to his stature among the party’s base, just as he weighs a possible White House run in four years.
In a Bloomberg Politics poll last week, Republicans were asked who should be the face of the party nationally in the event of a Hillary Clinton victory. Ryan came in fourth, behind vice presidential nominee Mike Pence, Trump and Senator Ted Cruz, with only 14 percent of those surveyed choosing him.
In a separate NBC/SurveyMonkey poll released Tuesday, 63 percent of Republicans said they trusted Trump to run the party, compared with only 34 percent who chose Ryan.
"I don’t see a problem," said Sean Spicer, the Republican National Committee’s chief strategist, on Fox & Friends Wednesday regarding the poll results. "I mean, Paul’s not running for president. Donald Trump is. He’s doing a great job as speaker of the House."
Ryan, Spicer added, "will be a great partner to Donald Trump in the White House."
If Trump loses the election, Ryan will have to figure out how to contain the populist inferno that the nominee ignited within the party.
"I expect civil war within the GOP after November 8th, as party elites inside and outside of Congress jockey to assign blame and claim the GOP mantle going forward," says Sarah Binder, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
"In the long term, it’s not clear to me who wins that battle and thus what will be the impact on Ryan’s 2020 ambitions," says Binder. "In the short term, Ryan will be under fire from his conference rank and file, many of whom will blame Trump’s electoral defeat on GOP disunity and Ryan’s role in undermining that unity."
There’s still a chance that Republicans could rally around establishment figures like Ryan, particularly in the wake of a historic defeat.
"Trump is on pace to lose the electoral vote by huge margins. It’s possible Republicans wash their hands of this election and move forward," says Joshua Huder, a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University in Washington.
But the party itself may have shifted underneath Ryan.
House Freedom Caucus co-founder Mark Meadows of North Carolina -- who last year led the charge to remove Ryan’s predecessor as speaker, John Boehner -- said that after Ryan all but ditched Trump in response to a vulgar 2005 tape, the response was overwhelmingly negative. He said he received more phone messages and e-mails from a broad spectrum of constituents expressing great disapproval of Ryan’s position "than just about any other issue in the last 12 months."
Meadows, in a separate radio interview last week, said that a push is building to oust Ryan. "It is picking up some steam only because a lot of the people who believe so desperately that we need to put Donald Trump in the White House -- they question the loyalty of the speaker."
"I do think there will be real discussions after November 8th on who our leadership will be and what that will look like going forward," Meadows added.
Some Republican leaders have carved a different path than Ryan. For example, the No. 2 Republican in the House, Kevin McCarthy of California, told Fox News on Tuesday that "we need to elect Donald Trump president."
Even so, no serious contenders have emerged yet to challenge Ryan, who is spending the final weeks of the campaign holding fundraisers for congressional Republicans and largely avoiding the spotlight. Ryan has avoided messy showdowns with conservatives while shepherding several challenging measures through the House, including a bill to address Puerto Rico’s debt crisis. And Ryan won over many House Republicans by making the rank-and-file more involved in decision-making about legislation.
Even some of Trump’s stronger backers in Congress say there’s no appetite to oust Ryan.
Freedom Caucus member Trent Franks of Arizona said he is among those those who "sincerely believe Paul Ryan should be more supportive of Trump," given the alternative of Clinton.
But Franks said Tuesday that none of his colleagues have approached him about joining any effort to dump Ryan as speaker, that he’s not aware of any such effort, "and I wouldn’t support it."
One of Trump’s first congressional backers, Tom Marino of Pennsylvania, also defended Ryan, despite disagreeing with his stance on Trump.
"Paul is allowed to address an issue the way he wants to speak on it," he said.
But Marino added that Trump had himself promised to take on "the establishment" in Washington -- including Ryan and other Republican party leaders. No matter how the election turns out, Marino said, Trump’s campaign has taken the Republican Party down a "different road."
Ryan’s backers say that blaming Ryan for a Trump defeat would be wildly misplaced.
"Why is the speaker getting beat up? For saying he wants to remain focused on congressional races, and for speaking out when he has spoken out? Really?" said Representative Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, a leading House centrist. "What is he supposed to do?"
Dent said Ryan’s decision to focus on preserving the Republican House and Senate majorities is sensible and leaves the speaker with "solid support within the House Republican conference -- period."
The restive Freedom Caucus, which has about 40 members, could have a higher profile in the next Congress, particularly if Republicans hold a much slimmer majority. The Cook Political Report’s latest forecast suggests that Republicans’ 30-seat majority could shrink by five to 15 seats, and perhaps more if Trump loses in a landslide.
Ryan also hasn’t helped himself with his public agonizing when it came to Trump. At first, Ryan prominently withheld his endorsement for nearly a month, before backing him via a newspaper op-ed.
Then, almost immediately, Ryan continued to rebuke Trump for attacking a federal judge over his Mexican heritage, suggesting there could be violence at the party’s convention in Cleveland, and his campaign’s use of anti-Semitic images on Twitter.
After the "Access Hollywood" audio of Trump bragging about groping women, Ryan hastily scrapped what would have been his first joint campaign appearance with Trump.
Ryan’s decision to stop defending Trump angered some Republicans, including Dana Rohrabacher of California, who said he wondered why Ryan was acting "like he was already giving it to Clinton."
Trump lashed out at Ryan, suggesting in tweets and interviews that he’s a weak and ineffective leader. Asked on ABC News last week if he believes Ryan wants him to be the next president, Trump said, "Well, maybe not, because maybe he wants to run in four years or maybe he doesn’t know how to win."
Some outside conservative commentators, including Fox News’s Sean Hannity and Fox Business Network’s Lou Dobbs, have also accused Ryan of trying to undermine Trump.
Through it all, Ryan in the past week has kept his promise to travel and appear at events on behalf of Republican candidates for Congress. But he also ceased answering questions from reporters about Trump.