MOUNT PLEASANT, Wis. — House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, in a navy-blue golf shirt and khaki shorts, made the rounds here at Serbian Fest over the weekend, shaking hands with burly older men in aprons as they poured beer and sliced fresh cuts of pork. Every selfie request was granted and every exchange was a variation of six degrees of separation, with the Wisconsin Republican seeming to know each person’s uncle or neighbor.
“Paul Ryan being Paul Ryan,” said local business owner David Peters, 59, looking on Saturday as he stood in the parking lot of St. George Serbian Orthodox Church. “I’m sure he’ll be fine.”
Days before his congressional primary Tuesday, Ryan wholeheartedly agreed.
“Wisconsin Republicans are good at sniffing out interlopers,” he said in an interview when asked about his challenger, Paul Nehlen, who has drawn outside support from several right-wing personalities.
“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, sitting at a picnic table as a nearby musician plucked classic rock tunes on an acoustic guitar. “It’s unnerving to people because it’s not how we treat each other in Wisconsin.”
What makes Tuesday’s contest notable — if not competitive, according to the polls — is Donald Trump. The Republican presidential nominee has in recent weeks lifted Nehlen from obscurity by praising him on Twitter and vacillated dramatically before endorsing Ryan in muted remarks Friday at a rally in Green Bay, Wis.
Ryan said he has not connected with Trump since the mogul endorsed him.
“Haven’t spoken to him,” Ryan said Saturday, a day after the endorsement. “I was at the cancer Relay for Life in Kenosha, so I just heard about it.”
Ryan added that he told his spokesman that evening to tell any inquiring reporters that he “appreciates the gesture and I’m focused on winning the endorsement of my constituents, my employers here in the First District.”
The jolt of intrigue has given the race’s final lap a somewhat nationalized feel. Firebrands such as commentator Ann Coulter have flown to this corner of southeastern Wisconsin to stump for Nehlen, while former Alaska governor Sarah Palin has plugged his bid on Facebook, all with the quixotic hope that he could score a primary upset similar to the one that defeated then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) two years ago.
Ryan dismissed Nehlen’s support as coming from “this alt-right crowd,” which he defined as a bloc that is separate from the conservative Republican mainstream. When told by a radio host last week that “alt-right” is a term often associated with fringe and racist elements, he did not argue the point.
Ryan, whose wife and three young children have coveted their privacy, has seen his Janesville, Wis., home become a site of Nehlen-organized protests. He called the intense and personal nature of this primary campaign unfortunate but not unexpected.
“I knew. I knew when I became speaker that I would be targeted no matter what I did because of the job. And so I accept that. It doesn’t really get to me,” Ryan said. “It doesn’t bother me because I know who I am, I know what I believe, and I’m comfortable in my own skin.”
In the run-up to Tuesday, Ryan has been doing what he has always done ahead of his usually sleepy House primaries: come to events like Serbian Fest to rekindle his relationships in this sprawling suburban district and remind voters about his commitment to the conservative cause, which he has worked in, in one way or another, since he graduated from college.
“They know me and that comforts me greatly,” Ryan said, pointing to the bevy of state and community Republican leaders who have backed him, describing the GOP here as a “gelled and unified party, as good as any other state in the country.”
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. A recent poll by Marquette University Law School showed his favorability rating among Republicans and GOP-leaning independents here at 84 percent.
Confident about his chances, Ryan also has spent time this summer working to secure the Republican majority in the House, in particular by promoting his policy agenda called “A Better Way,” which includes conservative proposals for reforming poverty programs, health care and taxes, plus a hawkish tilt on national security.
When asked if his majority could be in jeopardy, the 2012 Republican vice-presidential nominee answered carefully, saying it is natural for any elected official to be concerned about his party’s seats.
“Mitt [Romney] and I lost by four points and we lost eight seats. [Arizona Sen. John McCain] lost by seven [in 2008] and we lost 21 seats,” he said, referencing the past two presidential elections. “If you’re speaker of the House, it’s your job to worry about the Republican majority, no matter what the circumstances are.”
Ryan paused and smiled after his answer. When asked the question again in a slightly different way, he chuckled.
“I’m going to leave it at that,” he said.
Ryan went on to note that he has exceeded his fundraising goals as he readies his members for the fall campaign.
“The Clinton machine will have $2 billion, we’re being told. You have to prepare for that. That’s not just going to come against Trump,” he said. “That’s going to come against all Republicans and we have to prepare for this gauntlet of money that’s coming against us.”
Democrats face an uphill climb, regardless of whether Trump makes the year difficult for House Republicans. Passed filing deadlines have been an obstacle, with the party struggling to recruit strong candidates for some possibly vulnerable seats, and Democrats would have to win 30 seats to reclaim the majority.
Ryan rejected the suggestion that House Republicans may use “A Better Way” to build a national campaign that’s detached from Trump, should the billionaire’s poll numbers continue to slide.
“I don’t want to give you that narrative,” Ryan said, explaining that House Republicans came up with their election blueprint months ago, long before Trump was the likely nominee. He said it was crafted to give voters a “crystal-clear choice” and “was not done in reaction to Donald Trump’s candidacy.”
“I feel good about it because we’re doing the right things,” Ryan said. “I feel good about it because we’re not going to be caught off guard.”
Meanwhile, Nehlen is still campaigning hard ahead of Tuesday, doggedly believing that there is far more animus toward Ryan and the “political class” than the polling shows. But Trump’s endorsement of Ryan was a setback, coming as Nehlen was gaining notice and casting himself as a Trump acolyte.
Nehlen, who has resisted criticizing Trump for the endorsement, experienced the cold reality of the nominee’s turn up close, when he drove three hours north Friday to Green Bay. Excited to be there and wearing a “full suit and my favorite tie” – a Trump-style red tie — Nehlen was promptly booted from the event.
Nehlen blames “establishment” state Republican officials for being behind his removal, though the Trump campaign took responsibility in a statement, citing his lack of a ticket.
“They said you can’t come in here, they brought a detective — I don’t know what it was,” Nehlen said in an interview Saturday, standing outside of his headquarters in Kenosha, as Coulter signed autographs following their joint rally, which drew a modest crowd.
A minivan with Maryland plates was parked on the street, adorned with large white posters reading, “Trump Sell Out” and “GOP consultants 100, The People 0.”
“They held me from going in. I said, ‘I have a ticket. I’m on the list to get into VIP,’ ” Nehlen said, his face pained. “And they said, ‘Nope, you’re not,’ and they pushed me back out.”