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What Paul Ryan's Impending Departure May Signal For The 2018 Elections


We have news this morning of a shake-up in Congress. Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan will not seek re-election this fall. Ryan's office said in a statement, this morning Speaker Ryan shared with his colleagues that this will be his last year as a member of the House. He will serve out his full term, run through the tape and then retire in January.

We're joined now by Scott Jennings. He's a Republican strategist and a former adviser to President George W. Bush. Good morning, Scott.

SCOTT JENNINGS: Hey. Good morning.

KING: All right. So this decision by Speaker Ryan seems to have surprised a lot of people. Any idea on why he made it?

JENNINGS: Well, you know, Speaker Ryan's been in Washington most of his adult life. He was a staffer. He's been a member for a long time. And he found himself thrust into the speaker's office after the last guy got so miserable with the job that he didn't want it anymore. (Laughter). And so now he's in a similarly miserable position of leading a fractured caucus through rough times and facing, frankly, stiff political headwinds in November.

KING: Yeah. Let's talk about those stiff political headwinds. What does this departure say, or, this impending departure say about the confidence or the lack of confidence in the Republican Party's ability to hold the majority in Congress?

JENNINGS: Well, nothing good. I mean, you know, already people were historically looking at the probability that the party in power would lose seats. The Democrats appear to have an enthusiasm advantage in all the polling, although the Democrats had not pulled away yet totally on the generic ballot. And I think they have squandered some credibility on some of the policy fights. It was more likely than not that they are going to pick up the House. I think with Speaker Ryan deciding not to run for re-election, the message to donors, activists and other Republicans is, I don't have confidence in this. And now everyone, I think, will probably focus on holding the Senate. Holding one chamber for President Trump's agenda is better than losing both, and so I think that's where the focus is going to shift now.

KING: Well, speaking of President Trump, I wonder if you could give us some insight into what his relationship with Speaker Ryan was like and whether or not that relationship played into this decision.

JENNINGS: Well, I think there's no doubt that, you know, existing in Trump's Washington is different and more difficult than it has been for, you know, past party leaders, and that goes for people in both parties. But this job was already extremely difficult. I think the two people that are vying to replace Speaker Ryan - Kevin McCarthy, of California, and Steve Scalise - probably have a better relationship with President Trump. They like President Trump more, perhaps, at least in the case of Kevin McCarthy. And so you could make an argument that the relationship between the House Republicans and the White House could get stronger if, say, McCarthy were to become the leader. But, of course, they're going to be leading a much smaller conference and one that's probably going to be in the minority instead of the majority.

KING: Why a smaller conference? Just explain that a little bit.

JENNINGS: Sure. Well, right now they're in the majority. And after the November elections, obviously, many Republicans are going to lose and they're going to be possibly the minority party. So you won't have the same, you know, relationship that you have when you're the speaker leading a conference as you do when you're the minority leader. But there's no doubt that Kevin McCarthy is one of Donald Trump's main guys on Capitol Hill. So I assume he's going to use that relationship to try to become the next leader of the Republicans as this fight to replace Ryan accelerates. It was already going on under the surface, but now it really is going to accelerate.

KING: Scott, it sounds almost like you are betting on big losses for Republicans in November. Are you?

JENNINGS: Well, I wouldn't bet on anything in politics these days. (Laughter). But I would say that, historically speaking, Republicans are destined to lose some seats. The Democrats have an enthusiasm advantage. There appears to be a widening gender gap. And although I think the Democrats have put some things in the water that have made this a choppier ride then it ought to be, more likely than not, I would say a 60 percent chance that Democrats take the House and make the Republicans the minority, at least in the House. I think the Republicans still have a fighting chance to hold the Senate.

KING: All right, 60 percent. What do you think Paul Ryan's legacy as speaker is going to be?

JENNINGS: I think Paul Ryan is a wonderful leader. I think he held together a caucus as best he could that had some deep internal fractures. I think reforming the tax code and cutting taxes for all Americans is going to be his crowning achievement.

KING: All right. Republican political consultant Scott Jennings. Scott, thanks for joining us.

JENNINGS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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