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Rating Change: Ryan’s Exit Moves Wisconsin Race From Solid to Leans Republican

1st District contest could get competitive under the right circumstances

Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., arrives for a press conference Wednesday along with press secretary AshLee Strong to announce his retirement. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Speaker Paul Ryan’s decision not to seek re-election shakes up the Republican leadership ladder in Washington and affects his party’s ability to hold his seat back home in Wisconsin.

While Ryan’s retirement is huge news because of his position, it’s not as electorally alarming to the GOP compared to the retirements of Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in Florida’s 27th District or Rep. Dave Reichert in Washington’s 8th District. Both leave behind Democratic-leaning seats that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016.

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Wisconsin’s 1st is not a Toss-up race, but could still host a very competitive contest under the circumstances.

President Donald Trump took Ryan’s southeast Wisconsin district by 10 points in 2016, 52 percent to 42 percent. No statewide Democrat has carried the seat in a partisan race since at least 2008, according to Inside Elections data. The average Republican margin of victory in the 15 statewide races since, combined with Ryan’s re-elections, is 17 points.

[Paul Ryan Intends to Serve Out Term as Speaker, Hints at Endorsing Potential Successor]

Of course, this is shaping up to be a different cycle from 2010, 2014 and 2016, and might be better for Democrats than 2012. But even in the most recent, nonpartisan election for the state Supreme Court, the more liberal candidate, Rebecca Dallet, won statewide by 12 points but lost the 1st District by 6 points, according to J. Miles Coleman of Decision Desk HQ.

Republican candidates hoping to replace Ryan will be starting from scratch in fundraising and campaign operation. Meanwhile, Democrat Randy Bryce has been building a massive war chest. “Ironstache” had $1.3 million in the bank on Dec. 31 and raised another $2.1 million in the first three months of this year.

His fundraising could slow down going forward since he’s no longer running against a national figure, but he has plenty of money in the bank and a list of tens of thousands of donors to go back to for support. Bryce does have a primary opponent: Cathy Myers, who had $107,000 in the bank on Dec. 31. First quarter Federal Election Commission reports are due April 15, but the Bryce campaign released some numbers early.

Ryan had $10.6 million in his own campaign account on March 31, and obviously had access to any other financial help he might have needed. But his presence was also drawing attention to the 1st District.

Watch: A Look Back at Paul Ryan’s Career in the House

One of the biggest questions in the new race for the open seat is whether a fresher GOP face can match the average Republican performance in the district while getting dramatically outspent.

Republicans have until the June 1 filing deadline to figure out their field. Potential GOP candidates include state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, state Sen. Dave Craig, state Reps. Tyler August and Samantha Kerkman, and Bryan Steil, a member of the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents. If there’s a crowd, the primary will take place on Aug. 14, potentially leaving more time for Bryce to build his operation.

It’s always helpful to know who is running when handicapping a race. But at a minimum, Ryan’s retirement is a game-changing development, and we’re shifting our rating from Solid Republican to Leans Republican.

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