WASHINGTON—The political team that powered House Speaker Paul Ryan’s fundraising machine this year is turning its sights in 2017 to defending the GOP legislative agenda.
After years of lambasting Democrats over the perceived pitfalls of the Affordable Care Act and other laws signed by President Barack Obama, Republicans will now shoulder the political burden of defending legislation passed in the coming two years while the House, Senate and White House are all under GOP control.
Defending the expected GOP effort to repeal and replace the 2010 health-care law, for example, is going to be far tougher than Mr. Ryan’s go-to move this year: flourishing a pamphlet outlining the House GOP policy agenda, known as “A Better Way.”
To help Republicans navigate any political perils, Mr. Ryan’s political team plans to invest more money next year in polling, research and communications strategy. The team has 12 staff members operating from the Republican National Committee’s headquarters, compared with House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi’s five-person political staff.
Mr. Ryan succeeded John Boehner as speaker in the fall of 2015. In 2016 alone, Mr. Ryan raised nearly $90 million, including more than $52 million through his own network of political committees, as well as money raised by working with other lawmakers’ groups. He transferred almost $41 million directly to the House Republicans’ campaign arm, compared with about $16.4 million from Mr. Boehner two years ago.
In the five weeks before the election, Mr. Ryan appeared at more than 100 events in 25 states, according to his staff. He often swings through multiple states on fundraising trips before returning to Wisconsin for weekends. Unlike his predecessor, Mr. Ryan doesn’t stay to linger over a game of golf.
“He did not play a single round of golf,” in the year, said Kevin Seifert, executive director of Mr. Ryan’s political operation. However, Mr. Ryan has been known to play an aggressive game of paintball, aides noted.
Mr. Ryan’s political team evolved quickly after he was elected speaker, growing to nine full-time staff members in two months. Previously, Mr. Ryan had one dedicated political staffer, Jake Kastan, in addition to night-time help from Mr. Seifert, who was then Mr. Ryan’s chief of staff. Now, the operation has 12 staffers, with Mr. Kastan as the deputy executive director.
Mr. Ryan’s fundraising capacity has been buoyed by the connections he made during the 2012 campaign, when he was GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s running mate. The speaker has also maintained contacts passed down to him from Mr. Boehner, and those he cultivated on his own in the nearly two decades he has served in the House after first winning election in 1998 at the age of 28.
Now those connections may help Mr. Ryan consolidate his sometimes-shaky hold of the fractious House GOP conference. Members of the Freedom Caucus, a bloc of roughly 40 conservative Republicans who have often tangled with GOP leaders, have benefited from Mr. Ryan’s fundraising. The Wisconsin lawmaker directly contributed to more than a quarter of House Freedom Caucus members, with his donations totaling almost $100,000 from late 2015 to late 2016. He also campaigned with some members of the group, including GOP Reps. Rod Blum of Iowa and Scott Garrett of New Jersey, in a bid to show that he valued the hardline wing of the House GOP conference as much as its centrists.
Mr. Garrett ultimately lost his race for re-election, part of the GOP’s net loss of six seats in House races this year.
Those efforts began to yield fruit when Republicans nominated him to serve again as speaker in the next Congress. In the closed-door vote, Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R., S.C.), a Freedom Caucus member, formally nominated Mr. Ryan to serve as speaker. President-elect Donald Trump last week said he would nominate Mr. Mulvaney to be his budget director.
House Republicans have spent years arguing over conservative legislation never destined to become law while Mr. Obama was in office. Now, they will be under pressure to resolve their internal disagreements to pass legislation that Mr. Trump can sign. And once the policy fight is over, Republicans will face a political challenge they haven’t contended with in years: defending GOP-crafted laws.
Mr. Ryan has experience on this front: Democrats have long attacked the budget blueprints he wrote as the chairman of the Budget Committee. His fiscal blueprints ignited political firefights by calling for an overhaul of Medicare to allow Americans 55 and younger to choose between private insurance plans with government support for premiums or staying in traditional Medicare when they become eligible for the program, though their costs could rise.
Aides said that these fights helped hone their strategy for talking about Medicare and other contentious policy issues.
Democrats said Mr. Ryan’s defense of his budget had backfired with seniors in past years. “They can spend all of the money they want, but it won’t change the fact that privatizing Medicare and ending the guarantee is a disaster for America’s seniors and for the Republican Party,” Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader next year, said in a statement.