WASHINGTON — Voters like the chaos.
That's the theory of Rep. Mark Meadows, chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, in the wake of Speaker Paul Ryan telling colleagues, in the midst of the toughest election cycle for the GOP in at least a decade, that he won't be sticking around for the aftermath.
"More than 50 percent of them want chaos here — to turn it upside down — even in suburban districts," Meadows, R-N.C, said Friday.
Like Meadows, many House Republicans are reluctant to frame Ryan's impending exit as a sign of disaster for the GOP, but it is clearly sharpening a palpable sense of instability that has permeated the Capitol throughout the Trump era.
"Ryan would not be retiring if he thought Republicans would hold the House in November," said former Rep. David Jolly, R-Fla. "He knows it's most likely lost. Any Republican saying otherwise is lying to themselves and their donors."
Already, Ryan's decision to bolt has touched off more jockeying for his job, even though Republicans admit they're not sure whether their next top official in the House will be speaker or minority leader. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said Friday that he will consider whether to run when Ryan steps aside at the end of this Congress, and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., are both interested in the job.
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Ryan threw his support behind McCarthy in an exclusive interview with NBC News' Chuck Todd on "Meet the Press" that airs Sunday.
Given Ryan's departure, Republicans are in for an even more turbulent stretch before the midterm elections than they were already expecting.
"It's the general abandoning the battlefield before the battle is fully engaged," said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., who survived his own re-election bid in the Republican rout of 2010. "The impact of it is demoralizing."
Republicans say they know they're going to lose seats if not control of the chamber.
"We are on guard," said Rep. Leonard Lance, R-N.J., who sits in one of the most heavily contested seats in the country. "I think we will keep the House. I think the majority might not be as strong."
Lance, who would all but certainly be washed out if Democrats net the 23 seats they need to take the House, suggested Ryan leaving could be a good thing for some candidates.
"Because he's not going to be our speaker in January," Lance said, "the question may turn on who the Democratic leader may be."
Republicans are trying to rally voters against Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who has been a fixture in their attacks on Democrats for a dozen years. Several Democratic candidates trying to unseat Republicans have said they won't vote for her for speaker if they win their races.
But recent special elections and months of polling suggest that Democratic voters are much more enthusiastic about showing up to the polls and that many typically Republican voters in suburbs across the country want to put a check on President Donald Trump. In other words, Republicans may be in denial about just how bad things are for them and Ryan's role in putting their majority in jeopardy.
"Paul Ryan's monument will be the putrid and smoldering ruins of the Republican Party and conservative movement that he betrayed with his complicity and cowardice," political strategist Steve Schmidt, an NBC and MSNBC contributor who was a senior aide at the National Republican Congressional Committee in the 2002 election cycle, wrote on Twitter Thursday.
Rep. Bill Huizenga, a Michigan Republican whose district favored Trump 56 percent to 38 percent in the 2016 presidential election, said he doesn't think Ryan's announcement is a bellwether of the GOP's chances in and of itself. But, he added, Republicans are in a dogfight. "We all know this is going to be a tough year," he said.
Part of the problem for any majority party in reading the tea leaves of electoral catastrophe is that most incumbents will be re-elected. They are, necessarily, less worried than colleagues who are on the chopping block. That may help explain why so many Republicans either don't see Ryan leaving as a harbinger or don't want to admit it publicly.
"Despite Ryan's departure, many GOPers will indeed survive and return next Congress," Jolly said. "But it appears it will be to the minority side of the aisle."