WASHINGTON -- House Speaker Paul Ryan's announcement Wednesday that he will forego reelection and relinquish his gavel in January triggers an unpredictable and unexpectedly early scramble to determine who will succeed him atop the House Republican hierarchy.
Ryan's departure would appear to clear the way for lower-ranking GOP leaders, including Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Calif., and Majority Whip Steve Scalise, La., to move up the ladder. But key uncertainties, starting with whether Republicans will be able to maintain their House majority, could keep the race unsettled for months.
"Everybody will start jockeying for position immediately," said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., chairman of the House Freedom Caucus and an influential member of the GOP's conservative bloc. "They won't wait for nine months."
McCarthy and Scalise, in the No. 2 and No. 3 spots respectively, hold a key advantage in any leadership derby: relationships.
McCarthy has assiduously developed close ties with GOP members, personally recruiting dozens of them to run in the landmark 2010 Republican landslide, and he has cannily adjusted to a shifting political climate in recent years. More recently, he has cemented those relationships with campaign cash, raising nearly $9 million already this year -- most of which gets doled out to vulnerable members.
Scalise, as the lead Republican vote counter, is the member of GOP leadership that most rank-and-file members interact with on a routine basis, and his Capitol office suite tends to be a hub for lawmakers when the House is in session.
But it is his personal saga of the past 10 months -- being shot in June by a would-be assassin who targeted Republican lawmakers practicing baseball, nearly dying on an operating table and enduring a grueling recovery to return to work last fall -- has placed him in a new light and could allow him to leapfrog McCarthy under the right circumstances.
It is unusual in recent decades for a congressional leadership scramble to play out over an extended period. Not since Tip O'Neill, D-Mass., announced his 1986 retirement two years in advance has a House speaker served an extended period as a lame duck.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Ryan compared the situation to former Senate minority leader Harry Reid's decision to retire in March 2015 -- nearly two years before the Nevada Democrat would ultimately leave office. Reid maintained power after the announcement, but the succession process was relatively bloodless: Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., claimed Reid's mantle within hours of the announcement, leapfrogging Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the party whip, and little drama persisted.
But it is not at all clear that McCarthy will be able to step into Ryan's shoes so cleanly. When John Boehner, R-Ohio, suddenly announced in 2015 that he would relinquish the speakership, McCarthy made an effort to move from majority leader to speaker, only to withdraw in dramatic fashion after he was unable to corral votes from conservative hard-liners who were afraid he would hew to closely to the Boehner mold. That opened up a leadership vacuum that Ryan ultimately filled.
Numerous lawmakers said Wednesday that Ryan would have no problem maintaining power through the end of the year, though some aired skepticism.
"A six-month speaker race is unprecedented," said Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky. "Some candidates won't survive the scrutiny." He later tweeted that "given my observations of the way things work in the swamp, it seems so improbable" that Ryan would stay that long.
The major factor for McCarthy this time around -- and what could be an overwhelming aid to his leadership ambitions -- is his close relationship with President Donald Trump, forged during the rancorous 2016 Republican presidential primaries. McCarthy emerged as a key ally for Trump and as someone he could call to get a frank download of congressional happenings.
After Trump moved into the presidency, McCarthy maintained close ties and has been a frequent visitor to the White House -- including a scheduled Wednesday night dinner where he is expected to dine with the president alongside other top GOP congressional leaders. McCarthy has kept Trump apprised of policy and political happenings on Capitol Hill in frequent calls to his cellphone, and at one point, was a leading contender to be named White House chief of staff.
Trump's fondness for McCarthy -- as well as other gestures -- have bulked up his standing with conservatives and, in the view of numerous lawmakers and aides, could prevent a repeat of his 2015 stumble.
Boehner sees McCarthy as the presumptive favorite. "I think Kevin McCarthy did a good job as majority leader for me, and he's done a good job for Paul, and clearly I think he's in the No. 1 spot," the former speaker told the Columbus Dispatch on Wednesday.
But Scalise is also well thought of in Trump's sphere. The president has singled out Scalise for praise, calling him the "legend from Louisiana" during his State of the Union address in January. And as rumors of Ryan's departure grew in recent months, Scalise happened to embrace a more active role as a public face of the Republican Party on Fox News and other outlets while also stepping out onto the fundraising trail in a bigger way -- a move largely seen on Capitol Hill as an attempt to keep up with McCarthy's efforts.
When Ryan's plans were still in flux, McCarthy and Scalise both sought to tamp down any sense of competition. "I'm not running against Kevin for anything," Scalise recently told Politico.
Now the race is liable to break out into the open, but some members are privately musing whether other alternatives might emerge -- especially given the potentially long wait till Ryan officially leaves.
One GOP member, speaking on the condition of anonymity to candidly describe private conversations, said some lawmakers would prefer to "clean the barn" and elect a fresh slate of congressional leaders. But, historically speaking, electing a House leader from outside the existing hierarchy -- such as Ryan, who was serving a Ways and Means Committee chairman when he was elected speaker -- has been the exception rather than the rule.
Without naming favorites, Ryan hinted Wednesday he favored elevating a current member of the House leadership team and that an endorsement might come down the road.
"I'll share those thoughts later," he said. "That election's in November, so it's not something we have to sweat right now."