What should have been a fairly routine primary challenge for House Speaker Paul Ryan has now become a symbol of Republican Party problems: A fight pitting the establishment against GOP rebels, and their controversial presidential nominee against Washington leadership.
Before last week, few people even knew — or cared — that Ryan’s primary for re-election was approaching. But when Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said he wasn’t ready to endorse Ryan and then praised his Republican challenger, Paul Nehlen, the political spotlight shined directly on Tuesday's contest.
While Ryan remains a heavy favorite, national reporters descended upon Wisconsin’s first congressional district, which he has represented in Congress for 16 years, to tell the tale of what could be the latest and greatest upset of a member of Republican leadership (House Majority Leader Eric Cantor unexpectedly lost his primary to upstart and college professor Dave Brat in 2014).
Ryan first failed to immediately endorse Trump when the businessman had all but locked up the nomination earlier this spring, and then continued to criticize some of his policies and statements, including his Muslim ban and his public fight with the Khans, the Gold Star parents who spoke at the Democratic convention.
Then Trump returned the favor. When asked by The Washington Post a week ago, Trump said wasn't sure if he was ready to endorse the speaker.
Nehlan, who spent some of his career relocating businesses from Canada to the U.S., has adopted some of Trump’s signature ideas. He has been highly critical of free trade agreements, including the Trans Pacific Partnership, and highly supportive of Trump's proposed wall along the southern border. He has also made central to his campaign plank is his critique of special interests and the so-called donor class.
"All we have to do is cast one ballot on Aug. 9. With your one vote, you can stop amnesty for good. With your one vote you can stop TPP. With your one vote you can end rule by corporations ... You can end the serfdom to special interests and become free, safe and secure," Nehlen said in an online campaign video.
Nehlen has also embraced some of Trump’s most divisive language, including his focus on people killed by undocumented immigrants. Telling the story of a hypothetical young American girl, he warned of dashed dreams, saying, "maybe she’ll be killed by an illegal immigrant in a car crash, or a home invasion, or a vicious violent assault — the kind that happens to men and women across the country each year."
For his part, Ryan has ignored that he even has a primary. He held an event in Racine, on Tuesday, but he has not responded to any of Nehlen’s attacks. He didn’t even respond to Trump when the he refused to endorse him.
Ryan did, however, take the time on Monday to say he disagreed with Trump on international trade, responding to the nominee's big economic speech that called for "Americanism," over globalism.
"We're in the global economy whether we like it or not," Ryan said. "The question is who is going to write the rules on the global economy — [we can't] retreat, not play the games, not get involved and let other countries write the rules."
Trump’s power play flopped. But the New York businessman didn’t have much leverage anyway: Trump lost Ryan’s Congressional district — and the state — to Sen. Ted Cruz in the April presidential primary.
Trump ended up endorsing Ryan on Friday at his campaign rally in Green Bay. Ryan wasn’t in attendance. And neither were any of the leading Republicans in the state, including Gov. Scott Walker, Sen. Ron Johnson and Reince Priebus, a Wisconsin native and head of the Republican National Committee.
While Ryan is likely to win this round, the fissures on display in his race are unlikely to be healed any time soon.