JANESVILLE, Wis. — On Main Street, a cement plaque designates the spot where a would-be Republican president addressed the people of this small Wisconsin city.
It was Abraham Lincoln who spoke there about slavery at the Young America Hall in 1859. Nearly 160 years later, Lincoln’s party is in turmoil. And one week before Wisconsin’s hotly contested primary, the conflict’s provocateur was roughly four miles away from where Lincoln once stood.
GOP presidential front-runner and real estate mogul Donald Trump was in town for about two hours, but his decision to hold a rally in the city of 60,000, hometown of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, confounded some of its residents for days.
With Ryan and Trump representing two warring factions of the Republican Party, Janesville became the center of the GOP’s inner struggle ahead of the crucial presidential primary April 5.
Another GOP presidential hopeful, Sen. Ted Cruz, of Texas, came to town five days before Trump, addressing a crowd of roughly 300 residents, according to the Janesville Gazette .
Though Ryan has largely stayed out of the presidential race, he has been critical of Trump’s proposed temporary ban on Muslims coming to the U.S., and the violence at some of Trump’s rallies. One day after Ryan gave a speech widely regarded as an attempt to counter Trump’s effect on political discourse , noting the dialogue “did not used to be this bad and it does not have to be this way,” Trump announced he would hold a rally in Janesville.
“I think it definitely was kind of an ‘in your face’ kind of thing,” said Amy Kettle, a young Janesville Democrat who opposes Trump, but attended the rally to see him for herself, and potentially disrupt it. “I think especially Trump, he’s going to say something about this being Ryan’s hometown and all these people being outside to see him.”
Though Kettle doesn’t back Ryan, she supported his call for civility.
“[Ryan] had to because it’s just gotten so crazy,” said Kettle. “He’s the top guy of the Republican Party so he had to say something, which I give him credit for.”
Trump did bring up Ryan, who was quickly booed by the crowd packed into the Janesville Conference Center, even surprising Trump who remarked, “I was told, ‘Be nice to Paul Ryan.’ Wow.”
The crowd’s reaction surprised some Janesville residents, who suggested it was due in part to people from out of town attending the Trump rally. Some local Republicans, even those who support Trump, said they also support Ryan, whom they refer to as just, “Paul.”
“I like Paul Ryan,” said Jerry Simerson, an older man sitting at the Citrus Cafe on Main Street, as the television played news of Trump’s campaign manager being charged with simple battery against a female reporter. Simerson said he supported Trump, arguing: “I think we need a change in the government. And Trump would be a good change.”
Dusty Weber of Shullsburg, which is in a neighboring congressional district, said he backed Trump but not Ryan.
“He’s kind of a hypocrite,” said Weber, citing Ryan’s condition that he would become speaker if he had enough time to spend with his family, but not supporting mandated paid family leave .
“People are just tired of politicians,” said his companion, who did not want to be named.
Bob Coom, who was sitting at the Citrus Café counter, said he backed Trump, and even though he said Ryan was a friend of his, he was critical of the speaker weighing in on the race.
“I don’t want to say a word against [Ryan],” said Coom. “But I don’t think those people should try to tell the voters how to vote. I think the voters should make up their own mind.”
Ryan was first elected to Congress in 1998, and has been easily re-elected ever since, representing Janesville and the surrounding area in this southeastern Wisconsin district. Though Ryan has received steady support, his district has not always voted solidly Republican, supporting President Barack Obama in the 2008 general election. With Ryan on the ticket, the district supported former Gov. Mitt Romney as the GOP nominee for president in 2012, but Democrat Tammy Baldwin also won three of the four counties in Ryan’s district in her successful Senate bid that year.
“We have quite a purple county,” said Schmidt, who chairs the Rock County GOP, headquartered in Janesville. “We’ve watched this county go red, we’ve watched it go blue.”
“I think when you look at a county like this, you’re looking at, hey this is just the everyday guy that we need to go speak to,” said Schmidt. “And Trump has pulled that, he has pulled in people that have never been involved in politics before.”
Schmidt suggested the area is much like Wisconsin, with blue-collar, hardworking residents who don’t always identify with one party. Wisconsin has a Republican state government, but is a swing state in presidential years, and hasn’t backed a Republican for president since 1984.
Janesville has hosted presidential candidates before. Former Sen. Rick Santorum came in 2012, and George W. Bush visited in 2004. Obama toured the General Motors plant in 2008. A year later, the plant shut down.
“We went through a lot of bad years,” said Dan, a Republican at the Trump rally who declined to give his last name. “We’re still rebuilding our job base and getting our wages back up and property values.”
Joseph Schnering, a Trump and Ryan supporter from the neighboring town of Lake Geneva, said, “Yeah, it’s a bunch of angry, mad people.” Schnering sees Trump’s message to those voters as, “Hey, ‘I’m there with you. I feel your pain,'” and it’s resonating.”
So how does he reconcile also supporting Ryan, who’s criticized Trump’s rhetoric as well as some of his policies?
“It’s okay to be critical,” Schnerning said. “That’s what makes our country great.”
The same day Trump was in Janesville, Ryan pledged to remain neutral in the Republican primary as the convention chairman.
But “I’m going to speak out on issues when I see things that need commenting on, on a case-by-case basis,” Ryan said. “I’ll do that to defend conservatism as I best understand it and know it.”