Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s wait-and-see attitude toward Donald Trump could spark a more competitive race for his own House seat in Wisconsin.
“I think Paul Ryan is soon to be Cantored,” former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin said in a Sunday CNN interview, referring to the shocking 2014 ouster of Eric Cantor, the sitting House majority leader, in a Virginia GOP primary.
Palin brought national attention to the insurgent campaign of businessman Paul Nehlen, who is challenging Ryan (R) in the Aug. 9 Wisconsin primary by attacking his support of immigration reform, free-trade deals — and, now, his decision to withhold support for Trump.
Nehlen blasted Ryan as “the great divider” after his bombshell announcement Thursday that he was not yet lining up behind Trump.
“If Ryan was even vaguely interested in the will of the people, rather than his own agenda and self-advancement, he’d find a way to work with the choice of the people,” Nehlen said in a statement Friday.
Palin’s subsequent vow to “do whatever I can for Paul Nehlen” has compounded speculation that Ryan might face the most competitive race for a sitting House speaker since Rep. Tom Foley (D-Wash.) succumbed in the 1994 Republican wave. Before Foley’s loss, 1862 was the last time an incumbent speaker lost a re-election campaign.
But there’s significant evidence that Ryan is not about to be ousted from the right, despite the volatile anti-establishment environment and Nehlen’s support from one national tea party group.
A Marquette Law School poll done shortly before the April presidential primary found 81 percent of Republican and GOP-leaning independent voters in First Congressional District had a favorable impression of Ryan, compared to 12 percent unfavorable. Even about a third of Democrats viewed Ryan favorably.
“It certainly is not the profile of an elected official in danger of losing,” Charles Franklin, the Marquette Law School poll’s director, said Monday. “But the thing we’ve learned about primaries is that motivation of opponents and the circumstances of the race come into play.”
“People know me really well in Wisconsin, they know I am going to stand up for my principles that are conservative principles no matter how popular that may be on a given day,” Ryan said of the Palin vow in an interview with Right Wisconsin’s Kevin Binversie, according to Buzzfeed. “They know me personally very well. I don’t really worry too much about outside agitators,” Ryan said.
Zack Roday, a spokesman for Team Ryan, the speaker’s political operation, said Ryan has made pains to stay connected at home despite the growing demands on his time as speaker — attending, for instance, a Kiwanis pancake breakfast in Racine over the past weekend.
“People in southern Wisconsin know Paul Ryan and they know what he stands for,” he said. “Janesville is his home and his commitment will always be to the people he represents.”
Even before the split with Trump emerged, Nehlen won notice for his sharp attacks of Ryan over his positions on free trade, spending and comprehensive immigration reform — issues where Cantor found himself vulnerable ahead of his loss to now-Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.).
In a campaign ad released last week, Nehlen rides a Harley-Davidson motorcycle past the shuttered General Motors assembly plant in Janesville before calling on Ryan to “debate me man-to-man, face-to-face” on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement Ryan has championed.
A super PAC affiliated with the Tea Party Patriots, a national network of conservative activists, cited Ryan’s immigration position in endorsing Nehlen last month, along with Ryan’s support for trade deals and for the budget accord negotiated last year by former speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).
Jenny Beth Martin, the group’s co-founder and national coordinator, said Ryan’s decision to withhold support for Trump is immaterial. “He is the No. 1 champion for immigration reform in the House, which is code for amnesty,” she said. “Just look at Eric Cantor to understand how the grassroots feels about this.”
There are indications that Nehlen, whose campaign did not respond to a request for an interview, is focusing on activating conservatives nationally in the aftermath of the Trump-Ryan split in order to boost his fundraising.
On Sunday, Nehlen tweeted that he was touring the U.S.-Mexico border with a reporter for the pro-Trump Breitbart news site, and on Monday, he called into Laura Ingraham’s nationally syndicated radio show. He also has the support of conservative figures Michelle Malkin and Richard Viguerie.
“I’m simply an agent of change at the state level,” he said in the radio interview Monday. “Paul Ryan’s my congressman, he betrayed me, and his growing unpopularity really bridges political factions.”
But back in Wisconsin, many of the voices that lined up behind Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in a bid to arrest Trump’s momentum — in particular, influential talk-radio hosts — are steering clear of Nehlen.
Several of those hosts dismissed Palin’s endorsement, referencing her widely panned speech at a Wisconsin political dinner shortly before Cruz’s win in the Badger State primary. Charlie Sykes, an influential Milwaukee radio host, wrote in an online op-ed that Palin “embodies the dumbing down of our politics.”
“Paul Ryan and Trump have very different visions both for the party and the country,” Sykes wrote. “In the primaries Trumpism bested Ryanism, but that does not mean that it won the war of ideas; nor should it mean that conservatives should be bullied, hectored and threatened into acquiescence.”
Trump did not perform especially well in Ryan’s district in the April 5 presidential primary, even though the First District includes economically diminished industrial towns where Trump’s message could have resonated.
Cruz outpolled Trump by more than 25,000 votes in the district, beating the now-presumptive nominee by nearly 20 percentage points there. Trump won 32 percent of Republican votes, underperforming his statewide margin of 35 percent.
Ryan, meanwhile, has massive financial resources to draw upon: He reported having having $7.7 million in his campaign account at the end of March. His joint fundraising committee, Team Ryan, raised nearly $23 million in the first quarter of 2016, which was subsequently distributed to other GOP candidates.
The Aug. 9 primary is likely to draw only a fraction of the voters who cast ballots in April. The presidential race drew more than 149,000 Republican voters in Ryan’s district; in 2014, only 43,293 voted in the GOP congressional primary.
While a smaller electorate can give an insurgent an opening, it can be difficult for an outsider without a proven fundraising or turnout operation to motivate voters to cast ballots in an election without other high-profile races.
Franklin said Ryan will benefit from his near-universal support from the state Republican apparatus — including GOP state legislators who will also be on the ballot with Ryan on Aug. 9 and will be focused on turning out their own voters.
“I certainly don’t sense any evidence among his normal core supporters there’s any great angst,” Franklin said. “They will totally have his back on this.”
Ryan has only occasionally faced primary opposition in his two-decade political career. In 2014, he won 94 percent against the first Republican challenger he’d faced since his maiden House race in 1998.