The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Paul Ryan easily wins his primary, but GOP’s populist storm still rages

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin talks to reporters in July on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP)
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JANESVILLE, Wis. — House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) reveled in the aftermath of his commanding and expected primary victory Tuesday against Paul Nehlen, a Donald Trump-inspired opponent, by ordering cheese curds and beer for his supporters.

But Ryan’s celebration will be brief, with the skirmish only the latest in this tempest of a year for a Republican Party churning between Ryan’s traditional conservatism and Trump’s flaring populism.

According to returns, Ryan was on pace to defeat Nehlen by a hefty margin, with the speaker garnering more than 80 percent of the vote with nearly 90 percent of the district's precincts reporting. The Associated Press called the race after the polls closed.

Ryan, 46, who reluctantly sought and won the speaker’s gavel last year, faces immense challenges in the coming months: protecting the House GOP’s 59-seat majority, promoting a conservative policy agenda to an electorate that is mostly paying attention to Trump — and, like an overworked parent, trying to calm his party’s infighting.

It won’t be easy. And Ryan’s task is complicated by his profile, which has at times has made him seem like a relic caught in a populist storm.

A self-described “movement conservative” whose politics are rooted in the tax-cutting platforms of Republicans past, Ryan has been uneasy from the start about parts of Trump’s candidacy and especially its tenets on trade and immigration.

Nonetheless, the GOP’s 2012 vice-presidential nominee has swallowed hard and endorsed Trump, intent on stitching together his party where possible as he labors to get voters to notice “A Better Way,” the six-pronged policy outline he crafted and unveiled earlier this year, which has proposals to reform poverty programs and cut federal spending.

Ryan disagreed over the weekend with the suggestion that “A Better Way” could become a vehicle for House Republicans to mount a campaign detached from Trump, should poll numbers slide for the party’s presidential nominee. But his blueprint could still be used to that effect by vulnerable Republicans in swing districts.

Ryan’s primary here was a microcosm of the forces he will contend with as he leads House Republicans this fall. Nehlen was boosted for a moment by Trump, and by outside super PACs and conservative personalities who are suspicious of Ryan and more than happy to tangle with him.

For Ryan’s critics, the speaker’s victory represented an opportunity lost. Though they have long acknowledged that Nehlen’s insurgency was more quixotic than competitive, they had hoped that he would have come closer than he did Tuesday, believing that a strong finish would perhaps show Republicans nationally that the party’s Trump-aligned bloc was gaining.

In particular, this rowdy branch of the GOP — a constellation of populist right-wing websites, pundits and strategists — wanted to make a statement on illegal immigration, an issue they see as central to Trump’s success and mishandled by Ryan, who has encouraged immigration reform.

Nehlen, 47, presented them with a ripe if imperfect vessel: an unpolished newcomer who shared their hard-line views on immigration. He espoused enthusiasm for Trump’s proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and said a discussion on deporting some Muslims was in order.

An executive at a water-filtration plant who moved to Wisconsin two years ago, Nehlen launched his campaign in April and opened an office in Kenosha, a town on the lip of Lake Michigan that sits on the district’s eastern border. His pitch was that he was a rabble-rousing political outsider who would advocate on behalf of working-class people.

Paul Nehlen challenged Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in Wisconsin's Republican primary for his seat in the House of Representatives. (Video: Paul Nehlen)

One early campaign video, a nearly two-minute spot posted on YouTube, was titled “Truth Resurrection” and featured Nehlen in sunglasses riding a Harley-Davidson motorcycle around the district with his tattooed biceps exposed, past a shuttered General Motors facility in Janesville and nearby farms.

As hard-charging rock music played, Nehlen lamented in his flat monotone how Wisconsin’s southeastern corner was once a manufacturing hub, and he challenged Ryan to a debate — or, if not that, an arm-wrestling match.

The clip has since garnered more than 275,000 views and was useful in giving Nehlen traction with activists elsewhere who intensely dislike the Republican establishment and were eager to rally behind an effort to topple Ryan.

Some on the right began to whisper Nehlen’s name as potentially “the next David Brat,” a reference to the little-known college professor who beat then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) in his 2014 House primary.

Breitbart News, a widely read conservative website that has excoriated Ryan, embraced the prospect, however remote, of a primary stunner and began to provide its readers with near daily updates on Nehlen’s quest. Several conservative stars with frayed ties to the party’s leadership, such as former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, fervently bought in.

“I think Paul Ryan is soon to be ‘Cantored,’ as in Eric Cantor,” Palin predicted to CNN in May.

But whatever appeal Nehlen had as a blue-collar voice — he often spoke of the dozen years it took him to obtain a college degree and of his time on factory floors — was countered by his campaign’s edgy and confrontational approach.

Nehlen and his supporters in recent weeks have inched close to Ryan’s home as part of protests that have drawn the notice of the U.S. Capitol Police security detail that protects the speaker. Nehlen has made the fence lining Ryan’s backyard a recurring theme of his stump speech, going on about how Ryan seems to be protected from illegal immigrants while others are not.

Nehlen’s tactics and rhetoric made him a non-traditional Republican primary candidate, rarely framing Ryan as liberal or a “Republican in name only” and instead as a “soulless globalist” who is colluding with corporate interests to pass immigration reform and usher free-trade pacts through Congress.

That style also drew criticism. The editorial board of the Gazette of Janesville wrote in late July that Nehlen’s “theatrics outside his opponent’s home this past weekend were particularly despicable,” adding that “Nehlen appears to have minimal grasp of the realities of legislating and law enforcement.”

Nehlen struggled in near obscurity up until last week, winning support in the conservative blogosphere but finding it difficult to be seen as a rising threat in Wisconsin. Ryan’s network of support, including a bevy of local talk-radio hosts plus state and community Republican leaders, is deep and passionate, having been cultivated by the congressman since he was first elected in 1998.

Then Trump tweeted to his millions of followers. On Aug. 1, he sent out a warm message to Nehlen. A day later, Trump heaped praise on Nehlen’s campaign in an interview with The Washington Post, calling it a “very good campaign, obviously,” and thanked Nehlen for a “very scholarly” letter he had sent.

Both of Trump’s gestures jolted Nehlen into the spotlight he had been seeking, and the conservatives backing him felt rejuvenated, making plans to take advantage of the sudden attention and make a big push in the race’s final lap.

Firebrand commentator Ann Coulter headed to the district to campaign with Nehlen, as did conservative filmmaker Ron Maxwell, who directed “Gettysburg” (1993). Nehlen’s own tweets caught fire with Trump’s backers and Palin once again urged her supporters to contribute.

But the boomlet fizzled Friday night when, under pressure from party leaders irate at his meddling, Trump gave Ryan a muted endorsement at a rally in Green Bay.

The agony was made worse by Nehlen’s trip there. After driving three hours north in a dark suit to show his support, he was kicked out. Nehlen, in an interview, bitterly blamed the state GOP and not Trump for his removal, though the Trump campaign took responsibility, citing his lack of a ticket.

Nehlen plowed forward over the weekend, appearing on cable channels and national talk radio as he crisscrossed the state with Coulter at his side. Addressing his unconventional persona at a Saturday rally at his headquarters, Nehlen said he did not “live my life like I’m going to run for Congress.”

The linking of Nehlen to David Brat’s famed bid, as a way of keeping supporters excited in spite of Trump’s turn toward Ryan, was obvious. His name was invoked by the candidate and Nehlen’s campaign had Brat’s former campaign adviser speak at a rally.

Meanwhile, Ryan campaigned quietly, declining Nehlen’s invitations to debate and rekindling his relationships across the district. He held town halls and shook hands at gatherings like Serbian Fest, held in the parking lot of a Serbian Orthodox church, where he dismissed Nehlen’s support as coming from “this alt-right crowd,” out of the mainstream.

Ryan’s campaign did not sit idle. Just in case the political winds became unpredictable, it poured more than $600,000 into television advertising in the past month.

But Nehlen’s upset was not to be. Standing at the Holiday Inn Express here Tuesday surrounded by bunting and hot finger food as they waited for their candidate to appear, Nehlen’s supporters said they only wished Trump had intervened earlier — and resisted the calls for him to endorse Ryan.

“Trump shouldn’t have done it. The whole thing gave me a bad feeling,” said Danielle Hoffman, 25, wearing a navy blue Nehlen T-shirt. She had flown here from New York with her mother to volunteer.

“Nehlen is the one. He’s the one who should be winning tonight,” she said.

Another woman nearby, who refused to let her name be published, agreed as she spoke about the threat of illegal immigration. She had come here from South Carolina to join the cause.

Even in his hometown, on a night of victory, Ryan was being chided by conservatives from around the country. They had lost but they were not retreating.

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MANCHESTER, NH - NOVEMBER 7: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event at SNHU Arena in Manchester, NH on Monday November 07, 2016. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)