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Ryan bombshell sets off scramble for his job

Kevin McCarthy will have to defy history, beat back a possible Democratic wave and win over a skeptical House Freedom Caucus to become the 55th speaker of the House.

That, and watch out for House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, too.

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Speaker Paul Ryan’s retirement announcement instantly thrust McCarthy and Scalise into a race for speaker that will unfold as the GOP battles to hold onto control of the House.

Burdened with an unpopular president, as well as having to keep a close eye on Scalise (R-La.) — who also has publicly declared his desire to be speaker, but only if McCarthy falters —the 53-year-old California Republican will have to find a way to lead the House GOP to victory in November.

And even if Republicans hold on in November – a huge question mark at this point– McCarthy will then have to deal with the House Freedom Caucus, which tanked his 2015 bid to become speaker, creating the path for Ryan‘s ascension.

On Wednesday, as Ryan’s bombshell announcement rippled through Washington, McCarthy and Scalise both paid tribute to Ryan without mentioning their own ambitions. But it’s obvious to everyone in the House Republican Conference that they want his job.

“We have a speaker of the House,” McCarthy insisted to reporters when asked whether he wanted to replace Ryan. “Our efforts are focused on finishing our legislative agenda. We have a lot of months still to go. And then we got to keep the majority.”

McCarthy downplayed any suggestion that House Republicans were hurt by Ryan announcing he would retire with just under seven months to go until Election Day.

“Remember, we’ve had a couple of speakers with this majority, and we’ll continue to keep the majority,” McCarthy added, before asserting, “There is no leadership election.”

“There’s not a race going on,” Scalise said when asked about his own future plans. “The speaker made his announcement today. The members are really digesting what that means. Ultimately we’ve got to stay focused on getting our agenda passed, working with President Trump and getting the economy moving again, and then keeping the majority — in that order. If we start to get sidetracked on focusing on some race that might happen down the road — [if] Nancy Pelosi’s speaker, none of that matters.”

Yet there has already been some discussion in Republican circles about whether Ryan can, or should, remain speaker for the rest of the year. Some GOP lawmakers and aides privately wonder whether having a lame-duck speaker is counter-productive. In this scenario, elevating McCarthy to speaker now or in the coming months – sometime before November – would allow him to lead the reelection efforts from a position of strength, rather than as a hopeful for the top post.

There are no signs that Ryan is ready to give up his gavel yet, according to GOP sources and Ryan himself. “I want to be clear: I’m not done yet. I intend to run through the tape, to finish the year,” he said at a press conference Wednesday.

While top Republicans refused to be drawn into open speculation about Ryan’s successor, other GOP lawmakers were more candid. A number of McCarthy’s allies quickly lined up behind him. Scalise’s allies whispered support for their guy, too, albeit without being named so as to not draw the ire of McCarthy.

“I think Kevin would be a marvelous leader,” said Rep. Jeff Denham, a fellow California Republican, quickly correcting himself by adding, “Speaker.”

With Ryan’s announcement, Republicans fully expect the struggle between McCarthy and Scalise — which has been a behind-the-scenes campaign until now — to became an open race for the job.

“Everyone will start jockeying for position immediately,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the House Freedom Caucus. “They won’t wait for nine months.”

Ryan rocks Republicans with retirement

“Whatever they do from now on will be looked at through that prism,” said a senior GOP congressional aide. “Does this help them or hurt them in becoming speaker?”

But the prospect of a drawn-out leadership race, starting seven months before the election, worries many Republicans, who feel it would distract from their fight with the Democrats.

“We don’t need the division right now, the division of an election for speaker during the campaign,” said Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.). “Depending on how the elections comes out, we can see where our strengths are, where our weaknesses are, and that could determine who should be the speaker.”

Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) said he hopes the “leadership would work out amongst themselves what the order and structure should be.”

“Nothing will be accomplished by blood-letting amongst the family.”

Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), who might make his own run for a leadership post, said he’s hopeful there won’t be a protracted leadership battle. But Walker acknowledged that positioning for top spots is likely to “start happening over the next few months.”

“I don’t want to be pollyanna-ish about it, but I think there’s still a spirit of unity as far as Republicans understanding the majority is in play,” Walker said. “And we need to stay focused on that, otherwise none of our policies get implemented.”

As majority leader, McCarthy has a more direct path to speaker. Scalise also told POLITICO recently that he would run only if McCarthy falls short.

McCarthy has forged a close personal relationship with Trump — something that Ryan was never able to do — which should help the majority leader if the GOP keeps the House in November. McCarthy had dinner with Trump last week, where he met with Republican operatives running a pro-Trump super PAC.

McCarthy has also become a powerful fundraiser. He raked in almost $ 9 million in the first three months of the year, while also transferring $ 2.9 million to the National Republican Congressional Committee. A joint fundraising committee with Vice President Mike Pence, a former House colleague of McCarthy‘s, took in $ 6 million. More than $ 1 million of that total has been sent directly to House GOP incumbents.

Yet McCarthy’s biggest weakness — which plagued him when he failed to win the speakership in 2015 following then Speaker John Boeher’s (R-Ohio) decision to step down — is that he lacks a vision for the conference and party, his critics have argued. McCarthy is a conservative, though his far-right critics say he’s not conservative enough. But McCarthy doesn’t strike many members as being a policy or legislative maven. He’s never been a committee chairman. And he’s not known to have any particular policy area to focus on.

“I don’t mean to say this to sound too negative, but McCarthy’s problem is that he is seen as being all about himself,” said the chief of staff for one hardline conservative Republican. “No one is really sure what McCarthy’s program would be as speaker. We knew what Ryan wanted. But what what does McCarthy want?”

While McCarthy will be able to counter that — he supports the president’s “America First” agenda, for instance, and can pitch himself as a Trump Republican — it is unclear how McCarthy would be different from Ryan or Boehner, both of whom had huge problems with the Freedom Caucus. That group of hard-liners repeatedly undermined Ryan and Boehner’s legislative agendas, and its opposition stopped McCarthy from becoming speaker in 2015.

Paul Ryan is pictured. | Getty Images

However, Meadows, the Freedom Caucus head, told POLITICO that he was open to McCarthy as speaker, and McCarthy is trying to improve his relationship with the group. He’s pushing a proposal to cut billions of dollars in spending from the recent omnibus package following heavy criticism from the right over the bill. He’s backed the idea of a special counsel to probe Hillary Clinton. And McCarthy is pushing a House vote on a balanced budget amendment, even though it has no chance of getting through Congress.

More such moves to bolster McCarthy’s conservative credentials are expected in coming months.

But if McCarthy can’t round up the votes for speaker, Scalise will be waiting in the wings. Scalise is seen by some conservatives as more ideologically pure than McCarthy, though he has supported the leadership agenda as majority whip. Scalise led the conservative Republican Study Committee and has been a vocal proponent of Second Amendment rights, despite being shot. He’s also known for shepherding a number of bills related to expanding access to oil in the Gulf of Mexico, though he — like McCarthy — has never chaired a full committee.

More important, Scalise has won enormous goodwill from other Republicans for his tenacious recovery from a near-fatal shooting in June. His stoicism and upbeat attitude has inspired other Republicans, some of whom are looking at him in a new light.

Scalise, who has the backing of a host of members from the Southern states, will ensure his infrastructure and relationships are primed in case McCarthy drops out. The whip is expected to announce record-breaking fundraising numbers in the coming days, sources close to him say. And he plans to raise money for incumbents throughout the year, even though he only recently re-learned to walk.

Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.

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