DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan announced yesterday that he's not running for re-election in the fall. His departure from the House and from the speaker's chair raises some concerns for many Republicans heading into this fall's midterms. He joins a record number of Republican incumbents choosing not to run again this year. And this is Fox News host Tucker Carlson's take on the situation last night.
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TUCKER CARLSON: Speaker of the House Paul Ryan says he's leaving Congress at the end of the year. He leaves behind a smoldering pile of wreckage once called the congressional GOP. We'll sum it for you next.
GREENE: OK. For more on where Ryan's departure leaves the Republican Party heading into the fall, let's bring in Jesse Hunt. He is press secretary for the National Republican Congressional Committee. He joins us in the studio this morning.
Thanks for coming in. We appreciate it.
JESSE HUNT: Great. Thanks for having me.
GREENE: So is the congressional GOP a smoking pile of wreckage, as Tucker Carlson said last night?
HUNT: I think the House GOP under Speaker Ryan's leadership has really done an exceptional job - you know, passing historic tax reform and rolling back a lot of burdensome regulations that have really ushered in a new era of American prosperity. I think there's a lot that we've accomplished, and that's something we're going to run on this fall as we continue on our mission to maintain our House majority.
GREENE: But isn't it hard to run on an agenda in the fall when the person that had been leading that agenda in the House is saying he doesn't want to lead the party anymore?
HUNT: This is a personal decision for Speaker Ryan. I think this is about his desire to spend more time with his family. If you remember when he took this job, he did it out of service to the country and the party. He - this wasn't one that he really campaigned for. We sought him out to lead our party. And he's done an exceptional job doing that. Now, he's moving on. We have other leaders in our party that will continue to hammer home the GOP's message.
GREENE: But you also have other members who are leaving. I mean, we're talking about a record number - more than 40 Republican incumbents who are either resigning, going into other office. I mean, that's a record number. This is not normal. What do you make of that? What is happening to the party?
HUNT: Many of these Republicans that have retired are term-limited chairmen or they're Republicans that are in ruby-red districts. There is maybe a net plus-two for Democrats as far as open competitive seats - as far as how many Republicans that have retired in competitive seats. But we've also had a lot of Democrats retire in competitive seats. Ruben Kihuen in Nevada 4 has retired under a cloud of scandal. He was someone who was accused of sexual misconduct with a former staffer.
GREENE: Let me ask you about ruby-red, though - the Republicans who are in ruby-red districts. What is that - what do you mean by that? And why would they be stepping down?
HUNT: These are districts where Republicans have an - you know, an R-plus-10 registration advantage where they're not historically competitive, and Democrats have, you know, failed to field even a nominal challenge.
GREENE: OK. But they're worried about losing potentially if...
GREENE: These are Republican candidates. Why step down then?
HUNT: These are Republicans who retired to move on to personal pursuits - pursuits in the private sector, moving on from Congress. This is something we see every cycle. It's fairly normal.
GREENE: But not as this number. I mean, these are numbers that we don't normally see. I mean, why is that happening this year in the party? Why do you have so many at a record number who are saying they don't want to serve anymore?
HUNT: Again, I think it speaks to more of their personal situation. A lot of times, you know, they have their own pursuits, their own desires. A lot of these guys have been around for quite some time. You know, I think that's part of the natural course that we see in politics.
GREENE: Because it seems like it's not a natural course. These are in a lot of districts that Donald Trump won very closely, and these are some members who are seen as probably losing in the fall, which...
HUNT: The vast majority of retirements are not in competitive seats, so that's incorrect.
GREENE: Let me ask you about Conor Lamb, the Democrat who won in a Pennsylvania district that was very much at the heart of Donald Trump's Rust Belt base that took him to victory in that election. We're seeing, as we said, a record number of Republicans who are deciding not to run. We're seeing a lot of Democrats who are saying they have found the model to win in Rust Belt districts like that. Are they winning the message right now? Are you concerned that there could be some real losses for you coming in the fall and that Paul Ryan stepping down is kind of another problem you're confronting?
HUNT: Conor Lamb, in his first ad, was sitting there holding an AR-15. Can you find me another Democrat in this country that, in their first television ad, introducing themselves to voters, would be holding an AR-15?
GREENE: I mean, I'm not going to - I'm just - I'm telling you this is a Democrat who won in a Trumpian district.
HUNT: Conor Lamb did an excellent job attacking Nancy Pelosi. I think you're going to see every Democrat in this country try to put distance between themselves, Nancy Pelosi and her progressive agenda that is out of step with the vast majority of independent-minded voters in competitive districts in this country.
GREENE: But how do you combat that? Whatever Democrats decide to do in - you know, in their own strategy, how do you combat losing districts like that?
HUNT: I think Conor Lamb made it very clear that Nancy Pelosi and her agenda is going to be very toxic for them this fall. And Democrats will be unable to say that, you know, if they don't necessarily support Pelosi, they're still going to accept money from the DCCC and her allied super PAC. That's not going to jibe with voters.
GREENE: A lot to talk about. Jesse Hunt, press secretary for the National Republican Congressional Committee, thanks a lot.
HUNT: No problem. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.