MADISON, WIS. - With Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan deciding against re-election, the focus Wednesday turned to other Republicans who could run for the southeast Wisconsin congressional seat that Ryan has held for 20 years.
But possible Republican candidates weren't saying much about their future plans, instead focusing on praising Ryan as he prepares to exit.
"Wisconsin Republicans are committed to keeping this Congressional seat and I am confident that our eventual nominee will uphold Paul Ryan's legacy of principled, conservative leadership," said Wisconsin Republican Party Chairman Brad Courtney.
Among those mentioned by Republicans as possible candidates are: former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus; Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos; state Rep. Tyler August; state Sen. David Craig; state Rep. Samantha Kerkman; and longtime Ryan friend, Bryan Steil, an attorney and University of Wisconsin Board of Regents member.
"Hey, it's the year of the woman," Kerkman said. "There's a lot to think about."
Vos tweeted a picture of himself with August and other Republicans at the White House, where they were attending a meeting and fundraiser. He did not comment on Ryan. August issued a statement that did not address whether he would run for the seat, calling Ryan a mentor to whom he would continue to turn for advice.
Priebus tweeted his praise for Ryan, but didn't say whether he would consider returning to the Wisconsin district where he used to live for a run.
The leader of Ryan's campaign team, Kevin Seifert, said Ryan has no plans to endorse if there is a Republican primary in the race to replace him, but that he "will work tirelessly so Republicans keep this seat."
Most Republicans in Wisconsin said the focus will be on whether Vos, the Assembly speaker since 2013, would get in.
"You have to start with Robin Vos as the one who decides whether or not he runs," said Brandon Scholz, a longtime GOP strategist in the state and former Wisconsin Republican Party executive director. "After that, there will be several other possible Republican candidates. Everyone is going to take a deep breath and decide what happens next. But Democrats won't take a deep breath. This certainly means the Democrats will pour multi-millions of dollars into the seat."
Union iron worker Randy Bryce, who goes by the colorful nickname "Iron Stache," has been building a national profile and raising millions to challenge Ryan. Janesville school teacher Cathy Myers is also running as a Democrat.
"Paul Ryan decided to quit today rather than face Randy Bryce and the voters," said Bryce spokeswoman Lauren Hitt. "With nearly $5 million raised to date, a strong field program aided by organized labor, a broad coalition of support locally and nationally, Randy Bryce is incredibly well positioned to [win]."
Bryce is named on a national House Democrats' list of top challengers in Republican-held districts — not an official endorsement but a profile boost that comes with fundraising and organizational help, and an early sign of how confident the party has been that Ryan and the GOP majority are vulnerable.
Myers said the speaker "was running scared and was afraid of his constituents," even beyond what may happen to his party around the country in November.
She said Ryan's decision to drop out shouldn't change the approach for her or Bryce — or any Democrat in any other district. Republicans who run instead of Ryan "will just be Ryan-lite," Myers said. "The issues will be the same."
The only declared Republican was Paul Nehlen, who was banned from Twitter for a series of posts criticized as racist or anti-Semitic. Seifert, from Ryan's team, said Nehlen's "bigoted rhetoric and his reprehensible statements should disqualify him from holding any public office."
Ryan, 48, was first elected to Congress in 1998 and became speaker in 2015. The congressional district in southeast Wisconsin borders Illinois and includes his hometown of Janesville, Racine and Kenosha on Lake Michigan, and the southern Milwaukee suburbs.
President Donald Trump won the district by over 10 percentage points while winning statewide by less than a point. In last week's election for an open Wisconsin Supreme Court seat, conservative candidate Michael Screnock won the district by over 5 points while losing statewide by 12. The last time it went Democratic in a presidential election was when Barack Obama carried it by 3 points in 2008 before redistricting made it a little more Republican.
This story was written by the Associated Press.