KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— House Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R, WI-1) retirement makes his now-open seat a Toss-up, although the seat definitely sits to the right of the national average.
— Ryan’s departure adds to an already high number of open seats, and some Republicans could take his exit as a signal to leave the House as well. This is another bad sign for the Republicans’ prospects for holding the House.
— We have two other ratings changes in open seats: KS-2 moves from Leans Republican to Toss-up, while the retirement of Rep. Dennis Ross (R, FL-15) brings his seat on to the board as Likely Republican.
Table 1: Crystal Ball House ratings changes
The political world was rocked Wednesday morning by House Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R, WI-1) decision to not seek reelection to his southeastern Wisconsin House seat. That said, Ryan’s departure really should not have come as that much of a surprise. Rumors had been swirling for months that Ryan was not long for the House, and we flagged this strong possibility for Crystal Ball readers more than a month ago when we first listed Ryan’s district on our list of competitive House seats, moving it from Safe Republican to Likely Republican.
This plus the retirement of Rep. Dennis Ross (R, FL-15), which also came out Wednesday morning, pushes the number of open House seats to 59, adding to a total that is already the second-highest of the post-World War II era. Of these, 39 are held by Republicans to only 20 by Democrats.
The question of what to do with WI-1 in our ratings, now that it is open, is somewhat vexing. The seat definitely is to the right of center. While Barack Obama carried it narrowly in 2008, it flipped to the Mitt-Romney/Paul Ryan GOP ticket in 2012 by four points. Donald Trump won it by 10 points. Ryan has easily won the seat in every election since his initial victory in 1998, when he defended the seat for Republicans after former Rep. Mark Neumann (R) left to make the first of several unsuccessful bids for statewide office. Neumann first won the seat in 1994, defeating then-Rep. Peter Barca (D), who had beaten Neumann narrowly in a 1993 special election. The special was necessitated by long-serving Rep. Les Aspin’s (D) ascension to secretary of defense after Bill Clinton’s election in 1992 (Aspin’s tenure at the Defense Department was short and unhappy, and he only served for about a year and then died in 1995).
The reason to bring up the history is just to note that the district does have some Democratic lineage, although it is also the kind of area — significantly whiter than the national average, and with a slightly below-average level of four-year college attainment — that has been trending away from Democrats even prior to the emergence of Donald Trump. The district’s Republicanism was on display in last week’s state Supreme Court race, when conservative Michael Screnock carried the district by about five points despite losing statewide by about 11 points, according to DecisionDeskHQ’s J. Miles Coleman. Republicans believe the district favors them even as an open seat, pointing to internal polling showing a generic Republican leading there by about a dozen points.
The district’s recent Republicanism forms the argument for making the district Leans Republican. However, it’s hard to give Republicans much of a benefit of the doubt in most places given the president’s weak approval rating, the tendency for the president’s party to lose ground in the House in midterms, and the extra level of exposure the president’s party has in defending open seats. So we’re going to start the WI-1 open seat race as a Toss-up, while also acknowledging the uphill climb Democrats ultimately may have there.
Ryan’s retirement certainly puts the Republican field in flux, although one would expect strong contenders to emerge. Ryan’s long tenure has blocked ambitious pols in the district, and this may be the one chance they get to run for Congress. Paul Nehlen (R), a despicable white supremacist who Ryan defeated in a landslide in the 2016 primary, has already been running for the GOP nomination.
On the Democratic side, ironworker Randy Bryce (D) has gotten a considerable amount of publicity, although he’s unproven as a candidate. Cathy Myers (D), a member of the Janesville school board, is another possibility, and one wonders if the field of Democrats may grow now that the seat is open.
More broadly, many will view Ryan’s retirement as a concession that Republicans are resigned to losing the House in the fall. We’ve been cautious in our assessment of a House flip compared to other analysts, sticking to about 50-50 odds. But there’s no question that the Ryan exit is another bad sign for GOP House prospects and a sign that Democrats probably have the inside track for taking control of the House, at least right now.
Ryan’s exit prompts us to move another open seat toward the Democrats. The speaker’s retirement has nothing to do with the actual specifics of that race, but for consistency’s sake, if WI-1 is a Toss-up, then so is KS-2, an open seat in Kansas where 2014 gubernatorial nominee Paul Davis (D) is running a strong race against an uncertain field of Republicans. Local observers seem to think Davis has a 50-50 or better chance to win the district, and while it voted for Trump by about 18 points in 2016, Davis carried it in the 2014 gubernatorial race and Democrats won a version of the district in 2006, when ex-Rep. Nancy Boyda (D) won in a noteworthy upset. She ended up losing in 2008 to Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R, KS-2), who is retiring this cycle.
With these ratings changes, there are now 13 Republican-held open seats rated as Toss-ups or worse for Republicans. As we have noted repeatedly, these open seats are a very important part of the Democrats’ path to potentially winning the House.
Ross’s seat, the now-open FL-15, is also potentially competitive, and Trump won it by 10 in 2016. We’re going to start it as Likely Republican with the possibility of a more competitive rating after we analyze it further.
One other thing. We now know that the House Republican caucus will have a new leader in the next Congress, whether as speaker or as minority leader. One would think House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R, CA-23) and Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R, LA-1) are the leading contenders, although McCarthy could also be in play for White House chief of staff if current Chief of Staff John Kelly departs.
But could Democrats have a new leader in 2019, too? If the Democrats don’t win the majority, one would think that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D, CA-12) would have to step down. Given history and a positive political environment, anything less than winning a House majority would be a poor showing for Democrats.
However, there’s also a world in which the Democrats win a small majority — maybe 220 Democratic seats to 215 for the GOP, or something like that — on the strength of wins by centrist-positioned candidates in districts won by President Trump in 2016. Some of those Democratic candidates, like St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly (running in IL-12), the aforementioned Paul Davis, and Rep. Conor Lamb, who won a special election in Western Pennsylvania last month and will be running for reelection in the new PA-17, all have said they would not support Pelosi as leader of the Democratic caucus.
Now, it’s possible that some of these candidates would go back on their word and back Pelosi anyway in a close vote for speaker if they are elected. However, it’s also not out of the realm of possibility that a tiny Democratic House majority would open the door to a new leader of the Democratic caucus, too. Remember that, right after the 2016 election, about a third of House Democrats voted for Rep. Tim Ryan (D, OH-13) to lead the caucus over Pelosi. So while there will be leadership change on the GOP side for sure, the possibility exists for Democrats, as well.