House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) on Thursday at the Pennsylvania Machine Works in Aston, Pa. (Matt Rourke/AP)

Some members of Congress spend years, even decades, plotting their way up the ladder to become House speaker or Senate majority leader.

The reward? National ignominy is almost a certainty.

"Masochism. I always thought maybe that's part of it," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said, only half joking.

In 35 years on Capitol Hill, McCain has never run for a congressional leadership post, possibly one reason he remains an overall popular national figure.

That was once the case for House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.). Now, just 31 percent of Americans approve of Ryan's job performance while 51 percent do not approve, according to the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll.

Ryan's base of support is almost nonexistent: Eight percent strongly approve of his performance; 31 percent strongly disapprove.

It's safe to say that Ryan has now entered into the politically treacherous spot in which House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) found herself as House speaker in 2010 before Republicans took the majority. And it raises the question of when Democrats — and Ryan's own party — will begin using the current speaker's image against him.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is in a similarly perilous place — he has no base of support, literally. In the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll from the middle of September, not enough respondents held a "very positive" view of McConnell to register even a single percentage point.

For Ryan and McConnell, President Trump has accelerated their dive into infamy. With each legislative battle they waged, liberals grew more angry at their proposal. But when these efforts ended in gridlock, the president went after the two leaders with sharp criticism that depresses their support among conservatives.

The drive toward becoming a despised figure almost certainly results in the other party spending tens of millions of dollars tarring and feathering the leader's image in political ads.

Just before that 2010 midterm, Pelosi's favorability with voters fell to 29 percent, according to a Post-ABC poll at the time. Her advisers estimated back then that Republicans devoted more than $50 million in negative advertising targeting her that election season.

"You go into this thing believing that on a good day, you're unpopular. On a bad day, you're really unpopular," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.).

Seven years after Republicans first started targeting her in ads, Pelosi is a little less toxic but not any more popular. According to the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 25 percent of voters have a favorable view on her and 43 percent have an unfavorable view.

In that same poll, 24 percent of voters have a favorable image of Ryan, while 40 percent hold an unfavorable view on the speaker. He doesn't quite provoke as much of an intense dislike as Pelosi — 20 percent of voters hold "very negative" views toward him, while 28 percent hold such harsh views toward Pelosi.

Still, he has been speaker for less than two years. Pelosi has been the leading face of House Democrats for almost 14 years.

In early November 2015, a week after he took the speaker's gavel from John A. Boehner of Ohio, Ryan was a relatively popular figure, perhaps because he had never served in any leadership post and was drafted into the post by his colleagues.

Democrats believe Ryan would grow even more unpopular if they did to him what Republicans did to Pelosi. "She's not spending any money saying, 'Nancy Pelosi's great,' probably not even in the California markets," Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said. "Nobody is running national money against Paul Ryan. Ryan has become unpopular, Brown said, "because he isn't doing a very good job."

In the Senate race in Alabama, Roy Moore, the arch-conservative who won the Republican runoff primary Tuesday, used McConnell as a punching bag against the appointed incumbent, Sen. Luther Strange (R). Moore's consultants believe the McConnell attack line painted Strange as an establishment figure, propelling the former judge to victory.

McConnell's allies believe that Moore's background — he had been twice suspended from the state Supreme Court for actions applauded by religious conservatives — appealed to an electorate that wants to disrupt Washington.

Regardless of who is right, conservative activists have vowed to keep up those attacks against McConnell in primary races next year.

Despite disparagement in conservative circles, Ryan has maintained some well of support among Republicans. In the Post-ABC News poll, 53 percent of Republican voters approve of Ryan's job performance, while 31 percent disapprove.

That makes it more difficult to use Ryan in Republican primaries, but he will probably become a caricature in general-election campaigns — 31 percent of independent voters approve, while 52 percent disapprove of the speaker's performance.

"I don't consider it a thankless job; I consider it a hard job," Brown said of these leadership posts. He won his first congressional race 25 years ago, and has he never served in leadership.

Graham first won a House seat two years after Brown, and the closest he ever came to a leadership seat were the times he participated in coup attempts against House leaders in the 1990s.

"I'd rather be in Gitmo than do that all day," he said.

Praising McConnell's patience, Graham said he never could have done the behind-the-scenes work of a floor leader, especially knowing the almost guaranteed result is that two-thirds of Americans will consider you a political villain.

"I don't know how he does it, God bless him, because if I were in charge we'd be down to about 40 senators now," Graham said.

Because he would have killed the rest of them.

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