Speaker Paul D. Ryan is running against political newcomer Paul Nehlen in an open primary Tuesday — but there’s really three people in the race.
Nehlen’s long shot bid to unseat the nine-term congressman and rookie speaker has drawn a lot of media attention over the past week, thanks in large part to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Trump became a factor in the Wisconsin primary race after he thanked the water filtration company executive on Twitter for defending his comments against the Khan family.
The Republican presidential nominee then exacerbated the intrigue after he told The Washington Post August 2 that he was “not quite there yet” on endorsing Ryan and complimented Nehlen for running “a very good campaign.”
Trump reversed course three days later when he endorsed Ryan at a rally in Green Bay Friday. Nehlen dismissed the endorsement as something Trump needed to do to keep the party united and characterized Trump’s comments to the Post as “payback” for Ryan initially withholding his own endorsement of Trump.
“He was just messing with Ryan,” Nehlen said in a blog post.
Nehlen also acknowledged how much Trump has helped him, saying that since Trump’s tweet thanking him “we’ve probably gotten over a million dollars worth of free media publicity and raised more than $250,000 in new, much-needed contributions for the closing days of this campaign.”
Barry Burden, political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, said Nehlen has “made a lot of noise.”
“But a lot of it has been from social media or outsiders who have bolstered his campaign,” he said.
Ryan is well liked in the district and has invested in his campaign, Burden said. Federal Election Commission records show Ryan had nearly $9.6 million cash on hand and Nehlen had about $176,000 as of July 20, just a few weeks before the primary.
Nehlen’s campaign says he’s raised more than $1 million, but since much of that money has come from outside Wisconsin it’s hard to say how much it will translate into votes.
Ryan had not asked for Trump’s endorsement, nor will it likely help him much since he has higher favorability numbers among Wisconsin voters than Trump, according to polls.
Trump’s decision to insert himself into the race has allowed Nehlen to bolster his case as an anti-establishment candidate running against one of the primary leaders of the Republican Party. But the attention the race has drawn has never really been about Nehlen.
“It’s essentially become a proxy for the dance that Donald Trump and Paul Ryan have been doing for the past few months,” Burden said.
Nehlen has not been shy about likening himself to Trump. The two issues that he’s focused most on in his campaign — trade and immigration — are ones in which Ryan and Trump have major policy differences.
Ryan supports free trade agreements, while Trump opposes many longstanding trade agreements because he sees them as bad deals.
Nehlen has accused Ryan of pushing “policies that shutter Wisconsin factories and ship our jobs overseas.”
Burden said there is some genuine discontent with globalization in the 1st congressional district, especially since the 2009 closing of a General Motors plant in Ryan’s hometown of Janesville.
On immigration, Trump has said he would deport the 11 million undocumented immigrants estimated to be living in the United States, while Ryan has supported a path to legal status.
Trump has also called for an immigration ban on Muslims and Ryan has opposed religious tests for entry into the country.
Nehlen has tried to paint Ryan as a fan of open borders, but the speaker does support stricter border control laws.
Although there’s not a lot of immigration in Wisconsin, the dairy industry there relies on undocumented workers and has come out in favor of more liberal immigration laws, Burden said.
As a relatively unknown entity, Nehlen didn’t have much choice but to pin himself to Trump as a way to cultivate energy for his campaign, Burden said.
“It seems risky because Trump is not especially well-liked and because Trump lost the Wisconsin primary,” he said.
Since Wisconsin has an open primary system in which voters do not have to be of the same party to vote in a Republican primary, Nehlen has urged Democrats and Independents to vote for him in an effort to oust Ryan.
While some crossover does occur in presidential and gubernatorial races, Burden said he’s not expecting that to be a major factor in Ryan’s primary.
“I have not seen any signs that that’s going to happen in any significant way in this race,” he said.
Ryan is expected to win easily. A poll the Remington Research Group conducted last week showed Ryan with a 66-point lead over Nehlen.
Still, a Ryan victory on Tuesday is “not a sure thing because turnout is likely to be low,” Burden said.
“He needs to remind his friends and neighbors and supporters just to show up, not to take this for granted,” he said.