Why you should care
Because these GOPers could set the agenda for the next Congress.
Paul Ryan’s fuse has been lit. Even if Donald Trump can’t pull out a win, the presidential nominee seems almost destined to take down the embattled House speaker with him. Ryan also faces stiff challenges from the left: Democrats will likely gain 10 to 15 House seats, experts forecast, putting more pressure on Ryan to consider his rivals on key votes. And many of the moderate Republicans who make up his most loyal foot soldiers are already on the chopping block in key swing districts. “It hasn’t been an easy speakership for Ryan,” says Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a site run by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “It could get even more unpleasant.”
Of course, Ryan won’t go easily. There’s a reason modern overthrows of sitting speakers are virtually nonexistent. For starters, they usually voluntarily step down before it gets nasty, says Catholic University of America political scientist Matthew Green, author of The Speaker of the House: A Study of Leadership. Indeed, incumbent leaders have a lot of advantages, including the allies they’ve fundraised for — and Ryan helped raise $30 million for Republicans this cycle, a record for a sitting speaker and nearly triple that raised by his predecessor, John Boehner, during the 2014 midterms.
Both parties typically hold leadership votes following an election, which will be Ryan’s first big test, and a challenger could emerge at that time. Trump-supporting Freedom Caucus members have already requested to postpone that vote in a ploy, analysts say, to leverage their role in Ryan’s looming re-election during the December budget process. That means the Wisconsinite’s fate is probably preserved until the start of next year. After that, though? Anything is possible, including one of these political strivers swooping in to fight over Ryan’s mantle.
The Front-runner: House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.)
He’s baaack. The second in command, McCarthy was pegged to replace Boehner but withdrew his name under a cloud of whispered (though never confirmed) scandal. The Californian hasn’t even signalled he necessarily wants the job, though his sunny disposition has him well-liked and well-connected with moderate folks — and he’s most likely to have the votes already in place should Ryan decide to step down under fire. Plus, McCarthy has been an unwavering supporter of Trump, which makes him a nice bargain for Freedom Caucus members and the rabid Republican base that’s called for Ryan’s head.
The Vote Getters: Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and House Republican Caucus Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.)
Typically, legitimate speaker candidates rise from within leadership, says Green, which makes Scalise another possibility. He’s risen to a place of importance and likely has further ambitions, but he hasn’t always impressed with his ability to whip up support in his current post. The smart dark horse is McMorris Rodgers, who would become the first female Republican speaker if selected. Some say she wouldn’t have the votes to cut the line ahead of the top brass, but she would be a powerful alternative to a Hillary Clinton White House — and, perhaps, mend some of the fences ravished by Trump’s rhetoric toward women this year.
The Concession Picks: Mike Conaway (R-Texas), Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) and Tom Price (R-Ga.)
Nobody would be thrilled with someone from this trio, but everyone would get a little something. Texans Conaway and Hensarling have both floated their names in the past and sit on important committees — Conaway has led on ethics and agriculture issues, while Hensarling tops financial services. The delegation, like everything else, is bigger in Texas, and that would give either a head start in building a majority. Price hasn’t shown the vote-gathering slicks needed to build a coalition, though he has a solid conservative track record and is well-respected.
The Unlikely (but Fun to Imagine) Insurgents: Freedom Caucus leader Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.)
Jordan has tremendous sway with his supporters but is blamed by many for the chamber’s intransigence. Man, though, what would happen if the kingslayer were to be given the crown for a day? Gowdy became famous particularly in the Benghazi hearings and could try to transform his conservative pulpit into a post taking on a President Clinton this time. But while his name was previously bandied about as a possibility, he has never tried to join leadership — and some reports say he’s reticent to take on such a tiresome task.
Most likely though, Ryan will be given a punishment far worse than the death of his leadership post. As Green puts it: “If the Freedom Caucus really wants to punish Paul Ryan, they should keep him exactly where he is.”