Paul Ryan returns to House: Is he ready for bigger role in GOP?

Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin missed out on becoming vice president, but he retained his House seat. Now, he might be able to parlay his heightened exposure into greater clout.

Mary Altaffer/AP
Republican vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin, casts his ballot as his wife, Janna, son Charlie (l.), and daughter Liza watch Tuesday at the Hedberg Public Library in Janesville, Wis.

The defeat of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney does not necessarily mean a net loss for his vice presidential pick, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

Even though Congressman Ryan will not step into the No. 2 position at the White House, his three-month campaign on the national ticket gave him in spades what most public servants seeking higher office spend millions to buy: name recognition.

Now, having beaten Democratic challenger Rob Zerban Tuesday to retain his seat in Wisconsin’s First Congressional District, Ryan could parlay his new recognition into a greater role within the GOP – unlike previous losing vice presidential contenders, such as Sarah Palin and John Edwards, whose political careers dried up swiftly.

Most obviously, Ryan will be essential to his party this month and next when Congress addresses the "fiscal cliff" – the spending cuts and tax increases that need a resolution by Jan. 1, but will likely get pushed off to the new year.

“He’s their best wonk on the budget, and [House Speaker John] Boehner will need him to help cut some sort of deal with Obama and the Democrats next year,” says John Johannes, a political scientist at Villanova University in Philadelphia.

More broadly, Ryan's relative youth, his energy, and his gravitas as a former vice presidential candidate could give him an opportunity to help “recast the party to reach out” to women and minority voters, who both overwhelmingly supported Democrats Tuesday, says Victoria Farrar-Myers, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Arlington.

He is “one of the few congressmen who has been part of a larger national campaign and proven he can hold his own on the national stage,” she says. “He is now free to begin to develop his own sense of self and can be part of that redevelopment and restructuring of how the Republican Party moves forward.”

Even before this election, Ryan had become the face of the Republican Party’s fiscal agenda by drawing up a budget proposal that cut spending, reshaped Medicare, and retained tax breaks for all Americans (including the wealthy). His role as chairman of the House Budget Committee provided the Romney ticket with authority on spending priorities, even though the Wisconsin Republican became a lightning rod for Democrats who portrayed him as intellectually dishonest.

Ryan has not suggested he is interested in a higher office. “I look forward to spending some time with my family in the coming days and then continuing my responsibilities” in the US House, he said in a statement.

There is no US Senate seat available in Wisconsin until 2016 – and that is held by Republican Sen. Ron Johnson. Likewise, first-term Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) is virtually assured of being his party’s nominee for governor that same year.

His congressional reelection Tuesday also pointed to potential chinks in his armor. He lost Rock County, his home county, 52 to 46 percent – though the county trends Democratic. It has not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since it voted for Ronald Reagan in 1984. It voted for President Obama (and Vice President Joe Biden) Tuesday.

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