Senate bid would be colossal risk for fast-rising Paul Ryan

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is confronting a dilemma: run for the Senate and potentially vault into a GOP majority in the upper chamber, or stay put and keep climbing the House leadership ladder. 

Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) announced Friday he wouldn’t seek a fifth term next year, opening one of the state’s Senate seats for the first time in more than two decades. 

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Ryan is thought to consider time in the Senate a precursor to launching a bid for the White House. He’s already ruled out a 2012 presidential bid, but making a Senate run could also be a huge risk for the seven-term congressman.

He’s a powerful figure in the House, where he’s chairman of the Budget Committee. But the changes to Medicare he outlined in his 2012 budget proposal have become a lightning rod for the GOP and an issue Democrats are sure to press in a Senate campaign.

Also, the Wisconsin Senate race will be competitive no matter who the candidates are. Republicans will need a net gain of four seats (if President Obama wins reelection) to take control of the upper chamber, while Democrats are defending 23 seats. Democrats point out that Obama will be at the top of the ticket in Wisconsin next year, and that he won the state with 56 percent in 2008. Four years earlier, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) captured Wisconsin in his presidential run.

Plus, if Ryan ran and won the seat, he’d be the junior member of the state’s delegation, with no guarantee he’d get his preferred committee assignments or have as much influence in a chamber where seniority is key.

Meanwhile, Ryan is considered safe in his House district, where he easily won reelection last year with 68 percent.

Ryan, who said he was “surprised” by the 76-year-old Kohl’s decision to retire, is spending this week’s House recess in Wisconsin. He’s set to speak to the state GOP’s convention in Wisconsin Dells on Saturday, which could be his announcement address, although some operatives say they’re skeptical he’ll mount a bid.

 The congressman said Sunday that his plans for 2012 will be known publicly by the end of the week.

“I don’t want to dwindle on this, but we’re just beginning to process this information we heard two days ago,” Ryan said on CNN.

Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, who formerly headed the Wisconsin GOP, have spoken to Ryan about a possible candidacy, according to a GOP operative.

But GOP strategists think it’s a long shot that Ryan runs, says one Republican source, and notes there’s a bench of candidates in the state.

Wisconsin Republicans are waiting to see what he’ll decide, according to Mark Graul, a state-based GOP strategist. “Paul [Ryan] gets first dibs, and everyone’s going to wait to see what his decision is.

“I do not believe there’d be a competitive primary if Paul gets in.”

If Ryan stays in the House, he’s expected to eventually rise to become chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which some operatives consider his “dream job.”

Graul said Ryan is also weighing the effect a statewide campaign would have on his three young children. “That’s probably the biggest thing that’s going through his head,” Graul said. “A statewide campaign is not an easy thing on your family.”

If Ryan does forgo a bid, Republicans are confident they can find a Senate nominee from their ranks of current and former elected officials. 

The state’s attorney general, J.B. Van Hollen, is considered a potential contender, and former Gov. Tommy Thompson is in the mix, as is former Senate candidate Tim Michels. And Republicans are confident a wealthy businessman could emerge to claim the nomination, which happened in 2010 when Sen. Ron Johnson (R) came from obscurity to unseat former Sen. Russ Feingold (D).

Heather Colburn, a Wisconsin-based Democratic consultant, said it’s unclear if Ryan will run. “Regardless, this will be a competitive Senate election on both sides,” she said.

Feingold has left the door open to a return to politics, and Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), another liberal icon, is likewise thought to be mulling a bid. Either would be a strong candidate. Colburn predicted the primary field would eventually narrow to two or three contenders for Democrats to choose from.

Meanwhile, Colburn said, although Ryan has become better known in Wisconsin because of his leadership role in the House on the budget process, that will be a double-edged sword in a Senate campaign. “His budget plan essentially ends Medicare,” she said, previewing a potential Democratic attack.

Graul disagreed, saying the budget plan was “a lot more popular in Wisconsin than it may be elsewhere.”

Republicans have claimed the momentum in Wisconsin after capturing two House seats, a Senate seat and the governorship last year. “That is an accurate description for the Republicans to make — in January,” said Colburn.

Since then, controversy erupted over Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) plan to curb the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions and cut the state’s budget. Colburn said observers will be watching the nine recall elections of state lawmakers — six Republicans and three Democrats — in July for signs of what to expect in 2012. If the GOP lawmakers are recalled, it could spell trouble for the party in next year’s congressional elections.

“I don’t think you can make the case for having momentum in this state when they were handed all this power and it was taken away from them,” she said.

And if Ryan runs for the Senate, expect Democrats to make a play for his House seat. Obama carried it in 2008 with 51 percent of the vote.