2 major candidates are the frontrunners to replace Paul Ryan — and the jockeying could get ugly

Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise

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Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise
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Alex Wong/Getty Images

  • House Speaker Paul Ryan announced his retirement Wednesday.
  • While Ryan is not retiring until the end of the term in January, frontrunners have already emerged to take over the speaker job.
  • House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Majority Whip Steve Scalise are considered the leaders.

Almost immediately after House Speaker Paul Ryan announced his retirement Wednesday, speculation over who would replace Ryan at the top of the House GOP kicked into high gear.

Ryan has said he will not retire until the end of his term in January, but already two frontrunners for the speaker’s job have emerged.

The first is House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. McCarthy has served in his current role since 2014 and withdrew his candidacy for speaker in 2015 after it became apparent the California Republican did not have enough support to win.

This time, McCarthy has the advantage of being close to President Donald Trump, which could shore up his credentials with more conservative members.

The other frontrunner is House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who has served since 2008 and took over from McCarthy as whip in 2014. Scalise returned to Congress last September after months of recovering from injuries he suffered during a shooting at a congressional baseball practice.

So far, despite speculation over a possibly contentious battle brewing between the two, McCarthy and Scalise have stayed above the fray.

“Our efforts are focused on finishing our legislative agenda,” McCarthy said. “We have a lot of months still to go. And then we got to keep the majority.”

For his part, Scalise appeared to back down from any conflict with McCarthy.

“I’ve never run against Kevin and wouldn’t run against Kevin. He and I are good friends,” Scalise said.

Following the interview, Ryan applauded Scalise’s apparent support of McCarthy for the position.

“I was encouraged that Steve Scalise this morning said that he thinks that after the election that Kevin McCarthy ought to be the person to replace me,” Ryan told reporters. “I think that’s encouraging because what it shows you is that we have an intact leadership team that supports each other.”

But just because Scalise appeared todefer=”defer”to McCarthy doesn’t mean the race will play out that way. McCarthy was also considered the favorite in his first bid for speaker before protest from the conservative wing of the caucus derailed his bid.

Other wild cards remain possible, such as House Freedom Caucus head Mark Meadows or another candidate from the party’s far-right flank.

Of course, there is a good chance that neither Scalise nor McCarthy will get to hold the speaker’s gavel.

Ryan’s retirement, Trump’s low approval ratings, congressional polling, and recent special elections all point to Democratic gains in the midterms.

“With the Democrats clearly enjoying a tailwind heading into the midterms, the forthcoming GOP leadership battle is likely to result in deciding the next House minority leader,” said Isaac Boltansky, an analyst at the political research firm Compass Point.