There are more than a few ways to interpret Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s announcement this morning that he will not seek re-election during the 2018 midterms, vacating the Wisconsin House seat he has comfortably held since 1998.
It’s possible that when Ryan says that he’s stepping down because he wants to spend more time with his teenage children, as he claimed in his retirement announcement, he means it. But then again, 90 percent of all teenagers are nightmares, and I find it hard to believe that Paul Ryan would walk away from his goal of using the government to make Atlas Shrugged real just because he genuinely wants to take his rowdy teenage sons squirrel hunting in the Wisconsin wilderness (or whatever).
It’s also possible that Ryan is stepping down because he's not exactly on the same page as Donald Trump — who, to be fair, has treated him with the utmost disdain. Ryan doesn’t seem like a fan of his, either, and he could be making a calculated decision to sacrifice his power for the greater good. Not having to rely on the votes of Trump supporters would make it that much easier to speak out against the President, and even lead impeachment proceedings against him if things in Trumpland go even worse than they’re already going.
The idea that Ryan might be getting himself out of the paint so that he can #RESIST Trump might seem more plausible if Ryan had demonstrated any history of political backbone or even a vague sense that he ought to put the good of the nation over the continued primacy of the Republican party. The thing is, he’s not alone: Ryan’s Republican colleague Dennis Ross also announced he’d be stepping down this morning. Ryan and Ross now join a number of Republicans in the House and Senate who have declined to run in the 2018 midterms — most prominently among them Trey Gowdy of South Carolina and Darrell Issa of California in the House, and a slate of retiring Senators including Tennessee’s Bob Corker, Arizona’s Jeff Flake, and Utah’s Orrin Hatch (who’ll most likely be replaced by Mitt Romney or one of these goofballs).
In total, 27 Republican members of the House are retiring, while 13 are seeking higher office, leaving 40 House seats up for grabs — substantially more than the 24 seats the Democrats need to flip in order to obtain a majority in the House.
“Some of you wonder why I can’t do the normal politician thing, which is to run and then retire after the election,” Ryan said in his announcement, adding, “That is what I am told is the politically shrewd thing to do.” And while it’s true that Ryan hasn’t lost an election since 1998, this is a bit of misdirection on his part — his statement presupposes that if he ran again, he’d automatically be re-elected. This isn’t necessarily the case: His Democratic challenger was to be Randy Bryce, a mustachioed first-time candidate and ironworkers’ union organizer who, thanks in part to a viral campaign video has raised a total of $4.75 million — an unheard-of total for a candidate in Bryce’s position, and the type of money that could help him actually topple Ryan in today’s political climate. Retiring before the election spares him the potential humiliation of going down in history as the Speaker of the House who lost his Congressional seat to a blue-collar newcomer.
In Ryan’s absence, it seems that Bryce will now face fellow political novice Paul Nehlen, who the New York Times notes is “an avowed anti-Semite” who has “[earned] a national following among white supremacists.” In actuality, this is too soft a characterization — Nehlen has described himself as “pro-white” and has appeared on David Duke’s radio show as well as a podcast called “Fash the Nation,” and was banned from Twitter after posting a picture of Meghan Markle in blackface. All of this is to say that you do not have to be statistical wizard Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight to successfully predict that Randy Bryce is going to beat Paul Nehlen this fall.
The way things are shaping up, it won’t just be the Democrats with cool mustaches and organized labor bona fides beating horrifyingly racist Republicans in House races, however. Speaking of Silver, he recently pointed out that Democrats have gained ground in every post-Trump special election — including the ones they lost — and that given a historical tendency for midterms to favor the party opposite the President, it’s possible that this “Democratic overperformance” will “turn a challenging year for Republicans into a catastrophic one.”
Paul Ryan is many things, but he is not a completely clueless idiot. Just like the rest of us, it’s very likely that sees the writing on the wall — that people aren’t happy with how the Republicans have used their absolute majority over the House, Senate, and Presidency, and that this fall, there’s a strong chance they’re going to take out their frustrations on House Republicans. The fact that Ryan and so many of his colleagues aren’t seeking re-election might spare them the embarrassment of being voted out of office by pissed-off constituents, but it still shows that they know they need to be held accountable at the ballot box — even if they don’t want to be around when it happens.