House Speaker Paul Ryan announced on Wednesday morning he would be leaving Congress and it was a matter of minutes before everyone was speculating about his successor.
The speaker’s decision spun the Republican conference into a frenzy Wednesday as lawmakers placed their own bets and weighed in on the palace intrigue of who would hold the gavel next.
It’s will be seven months before of any leadership race. Ryan was emphatic Wednesday that he plans to remain in his job, but members say even before his formal announcement, the fight for speaker was playing out in subtle ways behind the scenes. With Ryan officially out, the race is expected to go into overdrive.
The conference’s eyes are on two frontrunners at the moment: Kevin McCarthy, the amicable majority leader who has forged a close bond with President Donald Trump but was unable to clinch the speakership in 2015, and Majority Whip Steve Scalise, the third in command of the House whose conservative credentials could help him win support from the right-flank of the party.
The Louisiana Republican became a national figure after his near-death experience last June when he was shot by a gunman targeting GOP members at a morning baseball practice. His remarkable recovery was featured in a “60 Minutes” story and after returning and being barely able to stand, Scalise now is walking with crutches and has hit the campaign trail to raise money for his colleagues.
Scalise has said publicly he won’t directly challenge McCarthy in the race, but the conference remains in a holding pattern until McCarthy makes his move. He signaled his potential interest in running for the top spot recently in an interview with Politico saying, “I wouldn’t rule it out,” depending on the political environment.
He added, “obviously, I’ve shown interest in the past at moving up. I’ve enjoyed being in leadership. I feel like I’ve had a strong influence on some of the things that we’ve done, and I’ve helped put together coalitions to pass a full repeal of Obamacare.”
A source close to Scalise pointed to those public comments, suggesting that Ryan’s Wednesday decision was something people were still digesting before making any new moves.
“Even before today, there was speculation. Obviously there are ambitions out there,” one GOP member told CNN, speaking anonymously to discuss the state of the race freely. “Scalise and McCarthy had already been positioning themselves for the next leadership race. They’re already doing favors for members, hosting members, doing fundraisers for members, helping members get legislation through.”
One leadership source told CNN that members have been approaching the leaders about what a “post-Paul Ryan world would look like” for some time.
But both McCarthy and Scalise tried Wednesday to redirect the Ryan news away from them, downplaying questions about their futures and refusing to state explicitly their plans.
“We have a speaker of the House,” McCarthy said Wednesday when asked if he’d be running. “We have a legislative agenda, lot of months still to go. And we gotta keep the majority. … There is no leadership election. Paul is speaker right now.”
Some Republicans suggested that to avoid a messy protracted contest there may be maneuvering between the two top camps about putting together a slate for the GOP conference to approve that would allow current leaders to ascend.
Waiting for November
Trump will likely loom large in the race. He has called McCarthy “My Kevin” and the two have developed a close relationship. If he weighs in with an endorsement that could effectively end the race. Ryan also signaled that he will talk about who he thinks should fill the post in the post, saying Wednesday, “I’ll share those thoughts later.”
During an interview Wednesday, Ryan said he had thoughts on who should succeed him, but he wouldn’t weigh in yet.
“I don’ think this is the time to get into it,” Ryan said.
Pushed to answer when it would be time, he said, “after November is when that gets decided.”
For now, the conference will remain in a holding pattern, a kind of political purgatory that members aren’t sure is sustainable long-term as they begin gearing up for the midterms and chart their agenda for a Congress after Ryan.
Rep. Steve Womack, the Chairman of the House Budget Committee, said he worried about a long, drawn-out leadership race.
“We have an election coming up in November, the midterms so I’m not really sure you’re going to see a lot of productivity from the Congress anyway, but you know lame duck speakers, that’s an additional challenge to the conference,” Womack said.
Many were shocked by Ryan’s announcement Wednesday morning. While the growing belief was that Ryan would step down after the midterms, few expected the speaker – a fundraising powerhouse – to announce he was stepping down before the midterms were over.
One GOP source involved in House races said they viewed any potential leadership race between Scalise and McCarthy as a financial windfall for their party, with the two men scrambling to see who can raise the most campaign cash in order to curry favor with their colleagues, adding to Ryan who will continue to be a presence on the fundraising circuit, the source said.
All eyes on McCarthy
McCarthy’s been here before.
In the days that followed House Speaker John Boehner’s retirement announcement, McCarthy, the then-majority leader, stepped up to run for Speaker, but was rebuffed by conservatives who put forth a competing candidate. In a stunning move, McCarthy withdrew his name during a conference-wide election and the leadership election was postponed.
A source close to McCarthy told CNN at the time that the decision to drop out came down to “numbers, pure and simple,” adding that McCarthy “had the votes to win the conference vote, but there just wasn’t a path to 218” – the number of votes needed to lock down the speakership on the House floor.
Eventually, Ryan was drafted.
Now, the question remains if McCarthy – who has a close relationship with Trump – would be able to overcome his past obstacles.
A leadership source told CNN that that Scalise’s intention is “to be ready” in the case that McCarthy isn’t.
Members also are eager to avoid any kind of embarrassing or dramatic leadership showdown like the one that transpired in 2015.
“I was very concerned when Paul Ryan was drafted in because we had a serious vacuum,” said Florida Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart. “I think Paul Ryan has really put together and has been able to lead a very solid leadership team. I think again he is a huge loss, but I think the leadership team is very solid.”
Diaz-Balart emphasized that McCarthy and Scalise had learned a lot since 2015. Since then, the conference has seen the election of a Republican President, passed tax reform and repealed a key piece of the Affordable Care Act.
Another question remains whether Republicans will even hold the majority in 2018 and need to draft a speaker at all.
“Here’s the bottom line. Anybody who starts spreading ideas about a race that we have not won is bad timing, bad behavior and bad posturing,” said House Rules Chairman Pete Sessions. “I would encourage my team to recognize that while the Speaker has served quite admirably, we are in a very difficult position at this time.”
Could it be anyone’s gavel?
Members are also reluctant to rule anyone out this early in the game. As the conference continues to reel from Ryan’s news, members say in the GOP conference, anything’s possible.
“Who knows. I think it could very well be wide open. Kevin and Steve are two who are looking at it very seriously … but with this conference, anything can happen,” one Republican members said. “I think it’s totally and completely wide open.”
Rep. Mark Walker, the chairman of the GOP Study Committee, also warned against making predictions in a Speaker’s race that appears to be months away.
“Historically, there have been dark horses in the past,” Walker said. “I don’t really want to get into this the same day. The body’s not even cold yet around here, which is how it works. … You have two names that are being discussed, but you have to kind of wait and see these things.”
One conservative source told CNN that they viewed the seven-month window for the leadership race as a major advantage for conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus who might have time to organize and leverage themselves. The source told CNN that the right flank of the party might not put forth a candidate for speaker, but could do something like trade votes for speaker for assurances that one of their own would be placed in a leadership slot.
“Our friends in the Freedom Caucus recognize that they have leverage here and I think the question is not necessarily which one of them is going to run but how they can maximize that leverage,” the source said.
House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows said Wednesday that the Freedom Caucus needed a seat in leadership.
“I think everyone will start jockeying for position immediately,” he said. “They won’t wait for nine months.”
CNN’s Manu Raju, Jeremy Herb and Phil Mattingly contributed to this report.