Despite what you may have heard, Paul Ryan is not Eric Cantor.
You can be forgiven for the confusion. Ever since a political unknown took out the powerful House majority leader in a shocking primary upset two years ago, top congressional Republicans have been a little jittery.
If such a shocking (and mortifying, and avoidable) defeat could happen to Cantor—a well-funded, well-established Republican leader with a seemingly bright future—it could happen to anyone.
That’s part of the reason some of Donald Trump’s top supporters have flocked to the southeast corner of Wisconsin, hoping to re-bottle the Dave Brat magic by using the anti-Cantor, anti-globalization, Trump-friendly rhetoric that proved lethal to past establishment Republicans.
But odds are Paul Ryan is going to be fine.
Trump’s decision to abandon the speaker of the House in his own primary won’t just hurt their relationship (such as it was), it could also jeopardize Trump’s already long-shot efforts to unify Badger State Republicans and win Wisconsin.
The laws of physics do not preclude challenger Paul Nehlen from defeating Ryan. Technically, it’s possible.
But it’s going to be really, really hard. That’s because Republican voters in Ryan’s district like him—a lot. Unlike Cantor, who hardly ever left D.C. to go back to his central Virginia district, Ryan regularly bounces back and forth between Washington and Janesville. He marches in parades, spends campaign money on TV ads, and meets with constituents.
And it’s paying off. Charles Franklin, who heads the highly respected Marquette University Law School poll, said Ryan’s approval rating among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents in his district is about 80 percent. More important, Franklin added, those numbers aren’t moving. The Republicans who like Ryan aren’t changing their minds. Efforts to damage Ryan’s reputation there simply aren’t working.
“The groundwork has not been set for an insurgence,” Franklin said.
That’s not for lack of effort. Nehlen’s advocates include some of the same right-wing media figures who helped propel Brat to his win over Cantor. Influential conservative talk radio host Laura Ingraham—whose speech at the Republican National Convention was one of its most underrated—is a dogged critic of Ryan, especially on trade. Ann Coulter, who praised Brat during his primary bid, plans to campaign with Nehlen on Aug. 6. Sarah Palin also promised to boost Nehlen, though there’s little evidence she’s done much to help him. And Michelle Malkin and former Rep. Tom Tancredo, two of the noisiest foes of comprehensive immigration reform, also endorsed Nehlen.
On Tuesday, Trump himself said he doesn’t support Ryan’s primary re-election bid. He also tweeted on Monday that Nehlen’s “kind words” were “very much appreciated.”
The Trump fanfic site known as Breitbart.com has also given Nehlen affectionate, adoring coverage throughout his bid, sometimes essentially posting transcripts from his cable news interviews. It has also hosted Nehlen on its morning SiriusXM radio show, where he recently said Ryan was “grown in a petri dish in D.C.”
But if there’s a candidate imported to southeast Wisconsin from the Washington metropolitan area, it’s Nehlen. He’s picked up scant support in the district, and his campaign treasurer is notorious scam-PAC artist Dan Backer—an Alexandria, Virginia, campaign finance lawyer who helps Tea Party groups raise small-dollar donations by sending out email blasts promising that just $5 will persuade, for example, Trey Gowdy to run for president.
Another problem? Nehlen’s vitriolic anti-Ryan rhetoric doesn’t play well in conservative southeast Wisconsin. When Brat campaigned against Cantor, he shied away from personal attacks and didn’t impugn his opponent’s character. Nehlen, meanwhile, calls Ryan a “soulless globalist” and a “mercenary champion.”
Wisconsin conservatives don’t talk that way. The state’s most powerful Republicans—RNC chairman Reince Priebus, Gov. Scott Walker, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, Reps. Sean Duffy and Jim Sensenbrenner, and, of course, Ryan himself—are all even-toned, mild-mannered, and affable. When the Democrats trying to recall Walker in 2012 used angry, over-the-top, incendiary rhetoric, the placid governor stayed unrelentingly pleasant. And he won.
Charlie Sykes, the most influential conservative talk radio host in the state, said Nehlen’s tone is a liability.
“It is an ugly, bitter tone that really clashes with the more upbeat, optimistic tone that people are used to hearing from people like Paul Ryan,” Sykes said. “And frankly, it underlines the fact that he’s not from around here and doesn’t appear to be familiar with any of the fights that we’ve had.”
“It’s very much got the feel of a scam PAC directed from Alexandria, Virginia, rather than anything genuinely grassroots,” Sykes added.
Matt Batzel, the Wisconsin-based national executive director for the conservative activist-training group American Majority, concurred.
“Nehlen’s getting momentum,” he said, “but it’s from the wrong people.”
Wisconsin has a well-developed, influential conservative media infrastructure, and it’s played a central role in Republicans’ efforts to turn the state purple. And none of the state’s prominent conservative media figures have come to bat for Nehlen.
And those tensions could affect the presidential election. Trump’s team has begun concerted efforts to reach out to Trump-skeptical conservatives in Wisconsin, especially in the corner of the state that Ryan represents. Sykes said vice presidential nominee Mike Pence sat down with him in person on July 27 to discuss how Trump’s team could get anti-Trump Republicans to work with him—or at least, against Hillary Clinton—in November. Trump can’t win Wisconsin without maximizing turnout in the state’s Republican-rich, Trump-skeptical southeast corner. And Ryan is the most popular Wisconsin Republican in that part of a state. By flirting with Nehlen, Trump took Pence’s bridge-building efforts and blow-torched them.
And Ryan isn’t the only top Republican left reeling over Trump’s move. Priebus worked overtime to unify Wisconsin’s top Republicans behind Trump. Walker, Duffy, and Ryan have all judiciously avoided criticism of the mogul, despite his obvious shortcomings. Sykes chalks that up to Priebus’s lobbying efforts. Wisconsin was one fairly happy Republican family—that is, until Trump took a shine to Nehlen.
“I don’t think it’s possible to overstate how close Ryan and Reince Priebus are, and how angry and upset Priebus was about this,” Sykes said. “This was a real personal and political humiliation for Reince.”
Barring something extraordinary, Nehlen will lose next Tuesday. And he’ll take Republican unity there down with him.