The House's resident budget hawk Paul Ryan announced Tuesday he would not seek the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Wisconsin Democrat Herb Kohl, saying his focus is fixed on the nation's debt situation. Ryan's no-go decision comes as popular former four-term Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson reportedly has decided to seek the GOP nomination for the seat.
"Our nation is quickly approaching a debt crisis that will do serious damage to Wisconsinites and all Americans if it is not properly addressed," Ryan said in a statement. "I believe continuing to serve as chairman of the House Budget Committee allows me to have a greater impact in averting this debt-fueled economic crisis than if I were to run for the United States Senate." [See a slide show of 6 ways to raise the debt ceiling.]
The 41-year old Ryan is considered a rising star in the GOP for his aggressive approach to fiscal policy. In recent weeks he has garnered both criticism and applause for crafting the party's 2012 budget plan, which includes dramatic changes to government subsidized healthcare programs. Many Republicans had been cheering a Ryan run for the Senate, or even the White House, which he has ruled out. "For Republicans in this state, Paul Ryan is the dream candidate, the candidate that everyone loves," says Scott Becher, a Wisconsin GOP strategist. "He's very much an iron man, very much a consistent player."
But Ryan would have had to vacate his influential House budget chair if he joined the upper chamber, as well as give up the prospect of taking over the House Ways and Means Committee, on which he currently sits. For now, Ryan said, the House is where he belongs. "For my family and me, the most important factor in making this decision was determining where I could make the biggest difference," said Ryan. GOPers speculate Ryan will have a long and powerful career there. "I could see him being a speaker, easily," says Becher. "He has that staying power."
With Ryan out, Thompson, who also served as President George W. Bush's secretary of Health and Human Services, is likely to launch a campaign for the seat. But if Thompson decides against a bid, "Wisconsin still has a lot of significant GOP stars," that have been making waves under the radar, says Becher. State Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, for example, could be one of the dark horses. Speculation is also surrounding state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen.
But the seat isn't a shoe-in for Republicans. "Wisconsin is very much a purple state," says Becher. "And Democrats took back the state assembly for the first time since 1994," says Becher. Also in 2008, Obama won Wisconsin in by 14 percentage points. But it's not clear which Democrats will step up to the plate. Former Sen. Russ Feingold, who was ousted by Ron Johnson in the 2010 midterm election, and Reps. Tammy Baldwin and Ron Kind are rumored potential candidates.