House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., was projected to easily defeat a longshot primary challenge from businessman Paul Nehlen Tuesday evening.
“I’m humbled and honored that Wisconsinites in the 1st Congressional District support my efforts to keep fighting on their behalf,” Ryan said in a statement to The Associated Press.
Ryan’s victory is a is a blow to the GOP’s populist wing, some of whom had criticized him as insufficiently conservative. Nehlen spent much of his campaign trying to tie himself to Donald Trump, but the Republican presidential nominee ended up grudgingly endorsing Ryan last week.
Nehlen won the backing of some prominent conservative figures, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, but it wasn’t enough to overcome Ryan’s popularity in the southeastern Wisconsin district he has represented since 1998.
This is Ryan’s first re-election win since becoming speaker last fall.
RNC Chairman Reince Priebus congratulated Ryan on what he called “a well-earned victory.”
“Speaker Ryan’s commitment to faithfully representing the people of Wisconsin and making the case for conservatism have never changed,” Priebus added, “and his years of principled public service make him a trusted leader in our Party.”
Ryan went into the primary with massive advantages in name recognition and money. He had outraised the unknown Nehlen by a 17 to 1 ratio through the latest reporting period, and was largely ignoring his opponent and was expected to win easily.
Trump changed all that the week before the primary, when he tweeted thanks to Nehlen for support while Trump was being vilified for remarks about the Muslim American parents of a U.S. soldier who was killed in Iraq. Trump also said he wasn’t ready to endorse Ryan, who had joined in that criticism.
Trump shifted course a few days later under heavy pressure from Republican leadership, but by then Nehlen had gotten a burst of national publicity.
Ryan responded with a blitz of radio appearances and added a pair of campaign stops the day before the election, determined to avoid the fate that befell House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, when the Virginia Republican lost a primary to a little-known Tea Party-backed challenger.
Ryan also worked hard to maintain his ties to the district, traveling back to his hometown of Janesville as much as possible to be with his wife and three children.
Nehlen, an executive at a water filtration company, first made a splash with a web video of him riding a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, showing his tattooed arms. He challenged Ryan to an arm-wrestling match if he wouldn’t debate him.
He ran well to Ryan’s right, accusing Ryan of betraying Trump and favoring a “globalist agenda” of disastrous trade deals and porous borders. Nehlen attracted support from Palin and conservative provocateur Ann Coulter, with the latter appearing alongside Nehlen in the district the weekend before the election.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.