House Speaker Paul Ryan had nearly $10 million in the bank and a primary opponent no one had heard of. Then Donald Trump got involved.
An expected walkover for the country’s highest-ranking Republican officeholder became one to watch on Tuesday, with Ryan seeking to avoid the most shocking of upsets against a political unknown hoping for a Trump bump.
Paul Nehlen’s star rose after Trump praised him last week on social media, then later pointedly withheld his endorsement of Ryan. Trump relented just three days later after coming under criticism from GOP leaders, but the burst of publicity was priceless for Nehlen.
No House speaker in modern political history has lost a primary, and Ryan is hugely popular in the southeastern Wisconsin district he has represented for nearly two decades. He crushed a protest candidate in the GOP primary two years ago, winning 94 percent of the vote. The only other time he had a primary challenger was in his first race, in 1998, when he won with 81 percent of the vote.
But Ryan responded quickly to Trump’s dabbling in his race, determined to avoid the fate that befell House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in his surprise primary loss in 2014. Ryan’s huge financial advantage has allowed him to blanket the airwaves with ads, and he made the rounds on influential conservative talk radio stations as Trump threatened to steal the spotlight.
Ryan had outraised the unknown Nehlen by a 17 to 1 ratio through the latest reporting period, and while Cantor was widely criticized for ignoring his district, that wasn’t the case with Ryan. He has made a point of returning to Janesville as often as possible to be with his wife and three children, and was initially reluctant to accept the speakership for fear it would keep him away from Wisconsin.
Nehlen ran well to Ryan’s right, accusing Ryan of betraying Trump and favoring a “globalist agenda” of disastrous trade deals and porous borders. Nehlen attracted support from Sarah Palin and conservative provocateur Ann Coulter, with the latter appearing alongside Nehlen in the district over the weekend.