MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos on Friday became the latest high-profile Republican to pass on the chance to run for Congress to replace retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan, leaving the field open for lesser-known candidates in a race that Democrats are increasingly optimistic will be competitive.
Vos joined with his longtime friend and college roommate Reince Priebus, the former White House chief of staff, in declining to run for the southeast Wisconsin seat. Republicans have been hastily weighing their options after Ryan's abrupt announcement Wednesday that he would not seek re-election, giving potential candidates just seven weeks to get in the race and file by the June 1 deadline.
Like other state lawmakers who have declined to run in the past three days, Vos said he wanted to focus on his own re-election and continuing his work in the Wisconsin Legislature. Vos is the most powerful Republican in the Assembly, which the GOP currently controls 64-35, and was the highest profile remaining potential congressional candidate, until he demurred.
Vos said his wife, former state Rep. Michelle Litjens, had also decided against a run.
"While I know that our nation's capital desperately needs more conservative reformers from Wisconsin, Michelle and I have decided that we can do more good continuing to push state-based conservative reforms," Vos said.
Republicans are desperately seeking someone to rally behind and distract from the candidacy of Paul Nehlen, a far-right conservative who got trounced by Ryan in 2016 and was banned from Twitter earlier this year for a series of posts criticized as racist or anti-Semitic. Ryan's political director Kevin Seifert denounced Nehlen as not fit to hold public office.
Another declared Republican candidate is also largely unknown. Nick Polce is an Army veteran who co-owns a security consulting firm and lives in Lake Geneva. He has been running since November on a platform of supporting term limits for members of Congress, cutting their pay by 33 percent, building a wall along the Mexico border and ending corporate subsidies.
Other Republicans still considering a run include state Sen. David Craig, a former aide to Ryan, and Bryan Steil, a close Ryan family friend, attorney and regent at the University of Wisconsin. State Rep. Samantha Kerkman says she's also looking at it.
They have said little about whether or when they will make a decision.
The south-central district, once home to U.S. automaker plants in Kenosha and Janesville, runs from the Illinois border north to Milwaukee's blue-collar south side. While Ryan easily won re-election nine times, and President Donald Trump carried it by more than 10 percentage points, Democrats see a chance to take the seat with the right candidate and strong turnout in November.
The field of candidates may also grow on the Democratic side with state Rep. Peter Barca, who previously served in Congress from 1993 to 1995, saying Thursday he's contemplating getting in.
That could potentially shake up the race that had been mostly focused on union iron worker Randy Bryce, who has raised nearly $5 million and garnered national attention with his "Iron Stache" nickname.
Janesville teacher Cathy Myers is also mounting a serious challenge, raising $500,000 in the first three months of the year.