By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News
The seismic news that House Speaker Paul Ryan will not seek reelection rocked Washington this past week.
Ryan was first elected in 1998 at 28 years old and built a name for himself as a whiz-kid budget hawk in the mold of Jack Kemp. His “Path to Prosperity” budget proposals to bring federal spending into balance through entitlement reform were the stuff of conservative dreams and liberal nightmares. He did not seek the Speaker’s gavel, but was drafted into the job because of his unique appeal to the various factions of a splintered GOP House Conference.
Why is Ryan retiring? He says he wants to spend more time with his family, including his teenage kids. I don’t doubt that one bit. Being Speaker is a tough job that is many times more trouble than it’s worth, especially considering the time spent away from home. At 48 years old, Ryan can probably get a better-paying gig with a more family-friendly schedule and without the constant back-biting from political rivals.
Don’t forget the Trump fatigue factor here. It is exhausting to be a Congressional Republican in President Trump’s Washington. The tweets; the drama; the hysteria from the other side. Many voters love all that because they see it as the president shaking up the place, just as he promised. But, when you’re living it as someone working to advance the agenda, it takes a physical and emotional toll. Trump fatigue is a real factor in why 43 House Republicans have announced they are retiring, running for a different office, or have already resigned.
All that said, make no mistake: Republicans are in serious jeopardy of losing the majority in the House. History isn’t on their side. In midterms after presidential elections, the party out of power almost always gains seats. Voter enthusiasm is also a problem for the GOP. Surveys show Democrats are highly motivated nationally, while Republicans risk being complacent.
Democrats need just 24 seats to win the House majority. That is doable for Democrats, and Republicans just lost their most reliable campaigner and fundraiser in Paul Ryan. If you were looking for a “canary in the coal mine’ indicating time is running out for the GOP majority in the House, Ryan’s retirement might be it.
That’s not to say more blue will be added to Alabama’s congressional map. The state’s six current Republican House seats are likely to remain red. However, Sen. Doug Jones’ win over Roy Moore has galvanized Alabama Democrats and convinced them that victories are no longer out of reach. Two Alabama congressional districts in particular are seeing spirited campaigns from Democrats: the 2nd District, held by Martha Roby*, and the 3rd District, held by Mike Rogers.
Roby’s biggest concern at the moment is getting through a crowded primary election. Waiting to challenge her in November will likely be Tabitha Isner, an early childhood education researcher and minister from Montgomery. Isner has so far raised more money than Roby’s primary challengers and has Democrats in this district more excited than at any time since Bobby Bright won in 2008. Part of what propelled Bright to victory that year was an unprecedented surge of Democrats turning out to vote for Barack Obama. I doubt Isner can count on that big of a “blue wave,” but there’s no question anti-Trump sentiment will drive plenty of Democrats to the polls. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has targeted Roby’s district as a pick up opportunity, so there will be at least some national help for Isner.
Challenging Rogers are two young female Democrats: Mallory Hagan, a 29-year-old television news anchor from Opelika, and Dr. Adia Winfrey, a 38-year-old psychologist and author from Talladega. Hagan’s high-profile status as a former Miss America might earn her some national media attention in the race. Winfrey has gotten her share of national attention, too, having recently appeared on MSNBC for a segment about black women inspired to run for office. One pitfall could be embracing progressive positions on issues like gun control and abortion, which fall outside the mainstream worldview in such a conservative district, but also fire up the liberal base.
Again, these districts will likely remain Republican. Most Alabama voters have gotten more conservative in the last several years, not less. Still, the fact that Democrats are giving it a go in such GOP-heavy districts shows how motivated they are to fight back against Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress.
*Disclaimer: I formerly worked in Roby’s congressional office.