Georgia Republicans on Wednesday were non-committal about who they would back to replace House Speaker Paul Ryan in the hours after the Wisconsinite announced he would retire at the end of 2018.
The news didn’t exactly take anybody by surprise – rumors had been circulating for months that the 20-year Capitol Hill veteran was thinking about leaving Congress – but the timing did. Ryan said at a press conference earlier in the day that he wanted to spend more time with his family.
Two of Ryan’s current deputies are said to be quietly jockeying to be his successor: Kevin McCarthy of California, currently the No. 2 Republican, and Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who is third-ranking as House majority whip.
Georgia Republicans almost uniformly took a wait-and-see approach to the upcoming leadership race. They lauded Ryan and his work as speaker – all but Karen Handel, who wasn’t yet in Congress, backed him for the chamber’s top position in January 2017 – and said it was too early to take a position on possible successors since others could enter the race in the months ahead.
“All of this has just come out today. I’m not prepared to make any decision,” said U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Monroe. “I’m sure there will be others running and at some point we’ll have a very clear slate of who’s running and who’s not and we’ll make a decision from there.”
It’s possible the House GOP will not vote on Ryan’s successor until mid-November.
No Georgia Republicans are currently expected to run for senior leadership roles later this year. In 2015, then U.S. Reps. Tom Price and Lynn Westmoreland briefly flirted with running for top positions after Speaker John Boehner stepped down.
U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, is currently serving as the No. 5 House Republican but will likely step down from that position should he get his desired promotion as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
Even though most Republicans were not willing to publicly declare their support for McCarthy or Scalise – or any other potential candidate – yet, several members of the delegation have long-running working relationships with both of the presumed front-runners.
Georgia Republicans have come to view McCarthy, once the GOP whip and now the House majority leader, as a key ally in the state’s water wars with Florida and Alabama. The state’s senior-most Republican, Tom Graves, is particularly close with McCarthy from their days together on the whip team, and there is some thought that if the Californian were to get the speakership it could help Graves’ darkhorse bid for the chairmanship of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.
Others in the delegation, including Rob Woodall of Lawrenceville, got to know Scalise well through their work on the Republican Study Committee, the conservative policy group the Louisianan once led.
Several GOP members of the delegation said Wednesday that they did not view either candidate as any worse for the state’s interests in Washington.
Meanwhile, several Georgia Democrats tried to capitalize off Ryan’s retirement announcement in their own campaigns.
"Paul Ryan is the get away driver leaving the scene of the crime," tweeted 7th District congressional candidate David Kim. "His tax cut added $135B to the deficit just this year. Thanks @SpeakerRyan! What a mess to clean up after the midterms, but I’m ready to fight for you!"
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams sent a fundraising email to supporters within hours of Ryan’s announcement arguing that it showed Republicans were fearful of losing control of the House in November.
“Here’s why Paul Ryan’s retirement matters in Georgia: Trump carried Ryan’s district by 11 points in 2016. If Republicans are afraid of losing there, they don’t stand a chance in a state Trump won by 5,” the email stated.
Local GOP lawmakers vehemently disagreed with that assessment.
Ryan “spent his year breaking every fundraising record, going everywhere in the country,” Collins said. “If he didn’t’ think we could keep the majority he would not be continuing to do what he’s doing.”