The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Paul Ryan’s primary becomes a proxy war between conservatives and Trump-loving populists

Republican congressional candidate Paul Nehlen, challenger to House Speaker Paul Ryan in the GOP primary, talks with voter Mary Ruffolo in Pleasant Prairie, Wis., in May. (AP Photo/Scott Bauer)

JANESVILLE, Wis. — House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) faces Paul Nehlen, an aggressive challenger with some national backing, in his congressional primary Tuesday, and polls indicate Ryan should easily win.

But the intensity of the race in recent weeks has turned what had been a sleepy contest into a proxy for the frothing national divide between traditional conservatives and Donald Trump-revering populists.

Paul Ryan is confident about keeping his seat, more cautious about the House

And Trump, whose relationship with Ryan has been scarred by skirmishes over temperament and fits of pique, is mostly responsible for swinging the spotlight over Wisconsin’s southeastern corner.

Taking to Twitter, where he has millions of followers, as he vacillated last week over whether to back Ryan, Trump had a warm exchange with Nehlen, a businessman with tattooed biceps who has cast himself as a Trump acolyte — and gave his campaign a jolt.

“His message came out of nowhere,” Nehlen fondly recalled in an interview over the weekend. “I had to pull over my car because my phone lit up.”

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump campaigns with vice presidential nominee Mike Pence in Green Bay, Wis., on Aug. 5. (Video: The Washington Post)

Although the Republican presidential nominee ultimately endorsed Ryan with muted enthusiasm at a Friday evening rally, Nehlen has explained that away as a dutiful response by Trump to pressure from party officials irate at the mogul’s meddling.

Nehlen has since linked arms with the right’s anti-establishment forces, hoping that he could be the next insurgent to topple a GOP leader, just as a little-known college professor defeated then-House majority leader Eric Cantor (Va.) in his 2014 primary.

Breitbart News, a widely-read conservative website, has been closely documenting Nehlen’s every move for its readers. Firebrand commentator Ann Coulter has traveled here to campaign for him. Cable channels have welcomed Nehlen on air, as have national talk-radio programs.

Nehlen’s boomlet, and his coziness with the GOP standard-bearer, has not been without bumps. He traveled to Trump’s Friday event in Green Bay, Wis., only to be kicked out by Trump’s campaign, citing his lack of a ticket.

Paul Ryan’s primary foe seeks to capitalize on Trump snub, promptly forgets podium

Local interest has not mirrored the conservative blogosphere. The Tuesday edition of The Gazette in Janesville did not feature a story on the campaign on its front page. Neither did The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

Ryan, who was first elected to his seat in 1998 at age 28, has held on firmly to the support of top Republicans in the state and his district, and from the state's influential conservative talk-radio hosts.

At stops over the weekend, he dismissed the rush of his right-wing critics to the area and characterized them as out of the mainstream.

“These tactics that they’re employing, which are basically scam PACs and hoax campaigns, inventing myths like I’m for open borders and the rest, just don’t really fly,” Ryan said in an interview. “It’s unnerving to people because it’s not how we treat each other in Wisconsin.”

A survey released last week by Republican outfit Remington Research Group shows Ryan up by 66 points, 80 percent to 14 percent, with 6 percent undecided.

But Ryan has not ignored Nehlen’s rise. His campaign has spent more than $600,000 on television ads over the past month and Ryan has been busy making the rounds, holding several town halls and shaking hands at community festivals.

Long before Trump intruded, the race here had been ugly and confrontational.

Nehlen has organized protests outside of Ryan’s home and his campaign has put up billboards that ominously portray the speaker as soft on terrorism. On the stump, Nehlen has been scathing, denouncing the nine-term congressman as a “soulless globalist” who is colluding with corporate interests to pass immigration reform and free-trade pacts.

Ryan last week told WISN, a Wisconsin radio station, that he does indeed have soul.

“I’ll give you my priest’s cellphone where you can call him and ask him,” he said, chuckling.