House Speaker Paul Ryan’s parting gift to his fellow Republicans will be the massive campaign war chest he leaves behind.
While some House GOP members expressed hope he would use his final months in office to act on long-stalled issues, including immigration, infrastructure and rising health insurance premiums, before the November election, Ryan has been more focused on collecting donations.
In the past week alone, the Wisconsin Republican raised $1.5 million during a fundraising swing through New York, Indiana, Ohio and North Carolina to help Republican candidates beat back the threat from Democrats attempting to the GOP from its House majority.
Centrist Republicans appreciate Ryan’s help with campaign dollars, but there is a fear that won’t be enough: They want legislative accomplishments to tout to voters as they campaign for re-election. No TV ad can make up for a bad vote or an unfulfilled promise, according to one member who asked not to be identified to speak candidly about electoral concerns.
“That’s what the biggest frustration for some of us was, that we’re getting shut out of these conversations that mean something, not just to our districts, but something personally to us,” said Mia Love, an Utah Republican who is part of a drive by a group of GOP lawmakers to force Ryan to hold a vote on immigration legislation.
Ryan hesitated for months on the immigration proposals that many Republicans say their constituents want, counseling members to campaign on economic growth and last year’s tax cuts. On Thursday, he convened a private House GOP meeting on immigration in a bid to quell a rebellion by his most vulnerable members — moderates in swing states — who have almost enough signatures on a petition to demand votes on competing proposals.
When Ryan announced he would retire at the end of the term, he promised to remain in his top leadership spot to “run through the tape” to finish the year strong and help Republicans hold their majority. It’s clear that meant spending at least as much time on the fundraising trail as on the legislative agenda.
“I have shattered every fund-raising record any speaker has ever set,” Ryan told reporters April 12, the same week he said he wouldn’t run for re-election. “So it’s obviously in our interest to keeping our majority that every player is on the field fighting for this majority, raising for this majority. And it makes no sense to take the biggest fund-raiser off the field. And I think almost all of our members see it that way as well.”
Donors continue to respond to Ryan’s fundraising pitches, even though he’s not running for re-election, because they don’t want a Democratic House to undo the tax cuts and other pro-business measures that Republicans passed last year, according to Jake Kastan, deputy executive director of Ryan’s fundraising operation.
“Speaker Ryan’s name may not be on the ballot this fall, but our agenda will be,” Kastan said. “Protecting the Republican House Majority means protecting our tax cuts and protecting all our conservative policy accomplishments, including our economic growth.”
Team Ryan, the joint fundraising operation of the National Republican Congressional Committee and Ryan’s political action committee, has raised $56 million so far for the 2017-2018 election cycle, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. Much of that has been transferred to the NRCC to be used in congressional races.
Republicans will need the money to try and counter Democrats who are capitalizing on dissatisfaction with President Donald Trump in a bid to take back the House majority. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California raised $16.1 million just in the first quarter of 2018, with $15.4 million going the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
It’s hard to directly compare the totals raised by different leaders, because the parties categorize their contributions differently.
The Republican-led Congress has notched some smaller legislative achievements this year, including easing bank regulations, changes to the Department of Veterans Affairs and allowing terminally ill patients to try medication that isn’t approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
But many members say they want to do more before November. Love and other lawmakers say leadership’s control of the agenda keeps them from doing their job: passing legislation.
Some Republicans want an immigration bill that will fund Trump’s border wall, while others want to provide legal protection for “dreamers,” the undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. Dave Brat, a conservative from Virginia, said he appreciates the conversations that Republicans are now forced to have because of the immigration petition, but is wary of the quality of any legislation written under the circumstances.
“The proposals I’m hearing about are all just political stuff whipped together at the last minute,” Brat said. “It’s not going to solve the problem.”
Another member close to leadership said Patrick McHenry, a North Carolina Republican on the vote-counting team, urged Ryan and his deputies months ago to act on immigration with more urgency. At the time, Ryan thought he could wait it out and not deal with the issue this year, according to the lawmaker who asked not to be named when describing private meetings.
The 48-year-old speaker, a self-proclaimed policy wonk who often reminds people that he never aspired to leadership, has exceeded the fundraising levels attained by his predecessor, John Boehner, although the two leaders tallied and divided up their resources differently between GOP campaign entities.
Boehner’s joint fundraising committee with the NRCC raised $26.6 million in for the 2012 midterms and $35.4 million in the 2013-2014 period. Including the donations he solicited for other members and fundraising events, he claimed much higher totals.
Ryan’s record sets a high bar for his heir apparent, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, who has been fundraising along with Vice President Mike Pence and has raised $5.7 million in this election period. Matt Sparks, a spokesman for McCarthy, said his other fundraising entities have brought in an additional $18.4 million.
As congressional races have gotten more expensive in recent decades, there is more of an expectation that leaders — especially the House speaker — use their fundraising clout to help keep ideological factions of the House GOP in the fold.
“The top leadership positions in Congress are elective, so it’s almost like they’re raising money not just to win their seat in Congress, but then they’re also raising money to curry favor with other members of Congress in order to build coalitions to support their candidacies for leadership positions,” said Greg Wawro, a political science professor at Columbia University.
Steve Scalise of Louisiana, currently the No. 3 Republican leader and often cited as an alternative to McCarthy, has also become a prolific fundraiser as his national name-recognition has grown. The $2.9 million he has brought in so far this election cycle sets a record for majority whip, the party’s vote counter. Tyler Daniel, a Scalise spokesman, said his fundraising this cycle exceeds $3 million counting donations to his other campaign entities.
If McCarthy or Scalise were to stumble in a bid to be elected speaker, fundraising ability almost certainly would be a factor for any other members with leadership ambitions.
“If we hold our majority this time, one of the real reasons will be the emergence of Ryan as the greatest fundraising speaker of all time,” said Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican. “I think if you can’t be a good fundraiser, you can’t do the job.”
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