Paul Ryan's future as House speaker has been such a topic of speculation that even the simple question of whether he will seek re-election to his Wisconsin seat remains secret.
Officially, Ryan says he's still deciding. But a person familiar with Ryan's thinking told The Associated Press this week the speaker plans to file campaign paperwork and intends to win his seat.
To do so, the Republican would have to fend off primary challengers, including one styled after President Donald Trump, and Democrats are fired up about a union ironworker, Randy Bryce, who goes by the Twitter moniker "Iron Stache."
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If Ryan emerges victorious, even those closest to him aren't certain he'll stay in Congress, particularly if Republicans lose their House majority. Asked whether Ryan would serve in the minority, the person who discussed his re-election plans with AP would not say.
The person was not authorized to discuss Ryan's plans and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Ryan's political spokesman Jeremy Adler said Thursday, "The speaker speaks for himself on this topic, and there is no update to his last public comments."
Washington has been guessing about Ryan's next step for months, with reports rising to a minor frenzy as allies seek to dispel any notion of a lame-duck speaker, which would be damaging both to fundraising efforts and to governing.
Some Republicans speculate that Ryan's work in Congress is complete now that he's accomplished his career goal of ushering tax cuts into law. Even if Republicans keep control of the House, it's doubtful he could achieve much more as speaker, a job he never wanted in the first place, especially with an unreliable partner in Trump. It's even harder, they say, to envision him as minority leader.
Charlie Sykes, an author and longtime ally who had a falling out with Ryan over the GOP's embrace of Trump, is among those betting the speaker moves on.
"I can't imagine him wanting to stick around too long," said Sykes, who pinned Ryan's dilemma on a president who "undermines and distracts" from the GOP's agenda. "This has been the story of the last two years — him trying to push this policy agenda amid the storm of distractions from the president."
Others expect Ryan still has sizable goals he'd like to accomplish, including downsizing the welfare system and other safety net programs, as he outlined in an impassioned monologue to reporters after the tax bill last year. And as much as Ryan fancies himself a policy wonk who prefers the realm of ideas, he's actually become increasingly skilled at the art of politics.
Unlike his predecessor, Speaker John Boehner, who was forced into early retirement by the House's rebellious right flank, Ryan has been able to persuade the conservative Freedom Caucus and others from open revolt. If he wants another term as speaker or leader, Ryan may well be able to secure the votes to win it.
"He's an eternal optimist," said Luke Hilgemann, former head of the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity, who now runs GOP campaigns in Wisconsin and other states. "He believes the job isn't done yet."
And so the debate rolls on. After one report late last year suggesting Ryan's 2018 campaign would be his last, Trump called the speaker to let him know he would be disappointed if that were true. The speaker assured the president he had no plans to leave, according to those familiar with the call.
Just this week, a Republican congressman, Mark Amodei of Nevada, mused openly to home-state reporters of "rumors" the speaker would not only retire from Congress, but that the No. 3 Republican, Rep. Steve Scalise of Lousiana, was on deck to replace him as speaker. It caused a mini-uproar nationally, and overwhelmed the Reno news site.
Later, Amodei said he had no regrets about publicly sharing the chatter from Congress. But he also acknowledged he had no firsthand knowledge of Ryan's thinking.
"He's got to say, 'I want to be the speaker in the 116th Congress," Amodei told AP, referring to the session after the election. "I haven't heard, 'I want to be the speaker of the House."
Ryan has allowed questions to linger in part because he keeps his inner circle of confidantes close and doesn't always fully commit to staying on the job, which he reluctantly took in 2015 after Boehner retired. At the time, the next-in-line Republican, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, withdrew from the race when it appeared he did not have enough support.
It's now a jump ball if McCarthy or Scalise would win the speaker's job if Ryan were to step aside. Both are popular with House Republicans, but they also have limitations. McCarthy is not seen as conservative enough by some hard-liners and Scalise is still recovering from life-threatening wounds after being shot at congressional baseball practice last year. Neither is openly jockeying to take on Ryan.
Ryan has shown few obvious signs of a desire to quit, raising $44 million and visiting 30 states in 2017, much of the money for the House GOP's campaign committee. The filing deadline in Wisconsin is in June. A Ryan political aide said that talking about the House GOP's record and ensuring candidates have enough resources to run remain Ryan's "top priorities."
Asked earlier this year if he would stay on as speaker if Republicans retain the majority, Ryan left room for debate.
"Am I going to be speaker? Yes, if we keep the majority, then the Republican speaker," he said in January on CBS' Face the nation. "You're asking me if I'm going to run for re-election? That's a decision my wife and I always make each and every term when we have filing in Wisconsin late in spring. And I haven't — I'm not going to share my thinking with you before I even talk to my wife."
Pressed, he said: "I have no plans of going anywhere anytime soon."