House Speaker Paul Ryan isn’t concerned about his House majority. At least publicly, that is, where he dismisses questions about “Democratic waves” and repeatedly steers talk back to the GOP agenda at hand.
But behind the scenes, the work the top House Republican is putting in belies a keen recognition that history and math paint a difficult picture for his conference in 17 months from now — and his recent victory in passing a repeal and replace of the Affordable Care Act, at least based on initial returns, may only make things more complicated.
“It’s early, but you can’t use that as a crutch,” Nathan Gonzales, the editor and publisher of Inside Elections, told CNN. “History tells us that Democrats are going to have a good year.”
So while Ryan is quick to shoot down questions about a potential majority-endangering wave (“Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah is what I say about that stuff,” Ryan said when asked about the possibility by radio host Hugh Hewitt), his latest effort underscores a central reality: the ambitious Republican agenda he has planned won’t go anywhere if the GOP is in the minority.
In the month since Republicans narrowly made good on a seven-year campaign promise to vote to dismantle and replace President Barack Obama’s cornerstone domestic achievement, Ryan has held nearly 50 fundraising events in 13 different states, an aide tells CNN.
In Washington, he’s served as a special guest at events for a handful of the party’s most politically endangered members. His fundraising help was, according to two people familiar with the matter, a selling point in the final wrangling of votes on the bill.
“Paul Ryan is doing the heavy lifting to not only keep Republicans even on spending in these special elections, but also keep the House Republican Conference united,” Kevin Seifert, the executive director of Ryan’s political operation, said in a statement. “He has met this moment with his characteristic energy, resolve, and optimism.”
That’s all as Ryan prepares, on Tuesday, to transfer over $2 million more to GOP’s House campaign arm, the National Republican Congressional Committee, bringing his total for the year to $22 million. That adds up to $5.5 million more than over the same period in 2016 — an election year, when donors are historically more willing to part with their cash.
Weekends off hasn’t mattered
While Ryan’s fundraising prowess comes in part from the position — his predecessor, John Boehner, was known as a relentless fundraiser — his success was, at least initially, an open question in town. The Wisconsinite made clear before taking on the speakership that he planned on spending weekends with his wife and three kids — eliminating a key fundraising window.
That, as the numbers have proven out, hasn’t been the problem once imagined.
“It turns out people give money Monday through Friday, too,” Rep. Steve Stivers, the Ohio Republican who chairs the NRCC, told CNN.
That’s made for a regular sprint for Ryan and his team after the final House votes of each week, hitting events in multiple cities over the course of a few days before touching back down in Wisconsin for the remainder of the weekend, where he splits family time with tours and events around his district.
The trips are punctuated, as conclusion nears, with an array of country or rock music at a decibel level normally reserved for a concert — with aides keenly aware that they are on the hook for playlist recommendations.
(Also of note: Ryan proudly reminds people that in October 2016, the heart of the campaign season as he was traveling through all corners of the country for his members, he was back in Wisconsin to watch every Green Bay Packers game, save for one half of the team’s Oct. 30 loss to the Falcons. A campaign visit to aid now-Nebraska Rep. Don Bacon took priority.)
It’s a split-screen of sorts for Ryan, who tends to admonish reporters for focusing too much on the politics (or tweet) of the day and not paying enough attention to what the House has accomplished. Some form of “We’re busy doing our work” is the verbal cubby Ryan can at times head toward when questioned about the latest Trump-related controversy sucking up the Washington oxygen.
Yet that work — and any accomplishments in the future — are exactly what Ryan is trying to protect with each fundraising event he hits, each call to a donor he makes. The political dynamics of a divisive and unpredictable non-politician in the White House have served to, at least up to this point, stymie the most ambitious items on his agenda and potentially threaten the Republican majority altogether. Yes, the fundraising is part of the job, but it’s also paramount in turbulent political times.
In the last hundred years, only two presidents — George W. Bush and Franklin Roosevelt — made it through their first midterm elections in office gaining seats in the House. Democrats lost 63 seats in 2010 and 54 in 1994. Republicans lost 26 in 1982 and 48 in 1974. In each instance, the circumstances and underlying factors were hardly analogous, but serve as a warning of what could happen should a combination of a poor political atmosphere and unprepared or underfunded candidates show up next fall.
Democrats, for their part, are quick to claim the early energy and audacious 79-district target list of a party preparing for a wave. The party, which needs to win 24 seats to retake the House majority, is staring squarely at marches opposed to Trump counting millions of participants and a Republican in the Oval Office with a historically low approval number.
They point to raucous early town halls in Republican districts and a special election in a reliably Republican district where a 30-year-old former congressional staffer has raised more than $20 million. Candidate recruitment across the country has Democratic operatives buzzing. On top of it all is a largely stalled legislative agenda, save for a House-passed health care bill with an approval rating mired in the low-double digits.
These, according to Gonzales, one of the leading non-partisan analysts of House, Senate and presidential campaigns, are the types of dynamics that should serve as significant warning signs for the party in power.
Ryan handing out cash
Ryan has keyed in on the special election race down in Georgia — where Republicans are facing a fight for a seat held firmly in their hands since 1978 — lending his name to fundraising e-mails for GOP candidate Karen Handel, hosting an event for her in Washington and showing up in the district for a rally last month.
That effort supplements the more than $1.5 million in checks Ryan has sent to more than 160 member campaign accounts — with a sharp focus on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s robust target list and the NRCC’s “Patriot Program” for front-line members in need of the most financial help.
Stivers, the chair of the House GOP campaign arm, says matter of factly Ryan has “clearly been our most valuable player,” noting he’s by far the biggest fundraiser in the conference. Given Ryan’s resume — vice presidential candidate, chairman of key committees and now, speaker of the House, Stivers said, more often than not donors at any event Ryan shows up to act as if they’re long lost friends.
“People all around this country connect with him,” Stivers says. It’s a connection that pays off of the party’s coffers.
GOP operatives are keenly aware that Democrats will need more than just the 23 Republican-held seats where Hillary Clinton bested Trump in the 2016 election. A sweep is unlikely — those 23 seats represent the “majority makers” — given those seats are in many places held by candidates who have bested difficult odds, some repeatedly, and are hardened veterans of grind-it-out campaigns.
That means GOP-majority districts in places like California and the northeast have become ripe targets — especially those with long-serving members who may have gone years, or even careers, without a tough re-election fight. It’s a model that should be familiar.
“Republicans gained seats in 2010,” Gonzales said, “not just from winning Republican-leaning districts but by knocking off some long-time members who hadn’t developed 21st Century campaigns — or hadn’t even had a real campaign in the 21st Century.”