IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Republican Battles Won't End With Election Night Victories

After the divisive election, Paul Ryan preached a unified country but still needs to unify the Republican Party.
Image: Paul Ryan
House Speaker Paul Ryan speaks in Janesville, Wis., on Wednesday.Paul Sancya / AP

Just seven hours after Donald Trump became president-elect, House Speaker Paul Ryan called for unity.

He was referring to the divided country, but he could have just as easily have been talking about his own Republican Party.

Until Tuesday, Ryan had been the central figure trying to handle a splintered GOP. And he - and the party - will have their first opportunity Thursday. Ryan is meeting with President-Elect Donald Trump and Vice President-Elect Mike Pence in Washington D.C.

Some party figures had openly opposed their nominee, who downplayed core Republican principles of small government and a free market in favor of nativist ideology and divisive language that countered the party's recent efforts at expanding its base beyond white voters.

On the flip side, Trump attracted support from a segment of society that had felt disenfranchised from Washington and politics.

Ryan spent the past six months carefully negotiating the crosscurrents of the Trump phenomenon. It took the Speaker nearly one month to endorse Trump after he clinched the Republican nomination.

After the 'Access Hollywood' audio tape emerged of Trump making lewd comments about sexually assaulting women, Ryan said he could no longer defend the nominee and would focus "entirely" on maintaining control of the House. His lukewarm support for Trump threatened his position, with some conservative members from the reddest of districts threatening to challenge his speakership.

Now Trump has won the White House and is the uncontested leader of the GOP. The Republican House leadership elections are expected to move ahead next week as planned, but Ryan still has work to do. Even with the luxury of a Republican-led Senate and a Republican president, the road to party unity is never easy.

Ryan did his part for fellow House members, raising $40 million for the National Republican Congressional Committee that is tasked with electing Republicans — twice as much as the former House Speaker John Boehner did in 2012.

He has raised money for more than a quarter of the conservative and anti-leadership Freedom Caucus members, including Reps. Mick Mulvaney, Alex Mooney, Mark Sanford, Warren Davidson and its chair Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio. He also hosted an event that raised $100,000 for Rep. Scott Garrett of New York, a member of the Freedom Caucus.

But discontent still exists from some conservatives upset with Ryan for keeping his distance from Trump throughout the campaign.

Conservative website Breitbart and its leader, Trump campaign CEO Steve Bannon, have repeatedly attacked Ryan, helping fuel conservative anger toward the Speaker.

To avoid the fate of former Speaker Boehner, who was effectively ousted by his own party, Ryan must “quickly adapt" to the new reality according to David McIntosh, a former member of Congress who heads the small-government Club for Growth.

“I think he has to do that immediately and form a leadership coalition with conservatives to build that unity,” McIntosh said. And that includes allowing a member of the conservative wing hold a spot in leadership.

After the unexpected Republican sweep of House, Senate and presidency, Ryan said Wednesday that the party has a “mandate” to govern.

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was more cautious, saying “it’s always a mistake to misread your mandate.”

“We’ve been given a temporary lease on power … and I believe we need to use it responsibly,” he added.

While Trump won the Electoral College, he is losing the popular vote. And 51 percent of Trump voters said their choice was motivated by dislike of the other candidate.

Michael Steel, former top aide to Speaker Boehner, said Ryan has an opportunity to use policy to reunite the party.

“[Trump] has only clear, strong opinions on a handful of topics,” Steel said, meaning that Ryan can largely set the agenda.

Rep. Chris Collins of New York, the first member to support Trump, said the business tycoon has said as much in the past.

Collins said Trump tells Ryan: "You drive the legislative agenda, I'll drive the vision and we'll work together and get this done."