Update, Aug. 10: Paul Ryan indeed vanquished his GOP rival with ease, winning at least 80 percent of the vote.
Donald Trump was able to win the Republican presidential nomination with relative ease. It’s a different story for those down-ballot insurgents trying to emulate him. On Tuesday, in Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District, Rep. Paul Ryan’s very Trumpy primary challenger, a man—and I do mean man—named Paul Nehlen, is expected to flame out in his bid against the speaker. He was a clown candidate who said dumb things and made howlingly awful commercials, and his loss today will be a comforting reminder that Trumpism has not yet gone local.
Talk of a Ryan primary challenge began in December, when the new speaker of the House opted to fund the government. Like many of the omnibus spending packages ex-Speaker John Boehner would rush through during the holidays, this multitrillion-dollar behemoth included items to placate both Democrats and Republicans: a “compromise bill,” to use the dated parlance. The reason Ryan negotiated the spending bill was because he needed Democratic votes to pass and a Democratic president to sign it. For shame. And thus was born a RINO.
“The hunt is on to find a suitable conservative candidate who can beat Mr. Ryan,” the Washington Times reported on Christmas Eve. “The Ryan campaign team in Wisconsin has shrugged off the threats, treating them as mere talk in the absence of a viable candidate to mount a challenge in the district.”
Some months later, rumor began to swirl of a challenger. Wisconsin Tea Party groups proclaimed that they had landed on some sort of businessman. It turned out to be Nehlen, an executive at a water filtration company and former Ryan supporter and donor, who now felt “betrayed” by Ryan’s support of immigration reform and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
What does one do first when one wants to unseat the highest-ranking Republican politician in the country? One makes some terrible web videos.
In “Truth Resurrection,” released May 4, our protagonist, sans sleeves to show off his killer tats, rides a motorcycle around the state and laments the loss of manufacturing jobs. He arrives outside an office of sorts. His arm candy—wife, maybe? She is not introduced—dismounts the bike and walks away, but Nehlen has a few things to say. “I’m a businessman. I build things, create jobs,” he says, still atop his hog. “Jobs allow people to pay their mortgage, put food on their table, put their kids through college.”
At this point, he takes his key out of the ignition, gets off the bike, and begins walking to the office door. “TPP is a job killer,” he says nonchalantly, back to the camera to show off the skull and crossbones on his shirt. “It’s gonna kill American manufacturing.” He walks inside, where suddenly he is wearing a business suit and goggles on a shop floor. A tough guy, Nehlen takes off his goggles and challenges Ryan to a debate.
In the June spot “Exposing Paul Ryan’s Drug Problem,” Nehlen wades through a shallow part of the Rio Grande River carrying a tub on which the word “DRUGS” has been spelled out in tape. He is wearing long pants and a long-sleeve, white button-down shirt. He is breathing heavily. “Cheap Mexican heroin is killing Americans in record numbers, and it’s gotta stop,” he says. “Paul Ryan had 18 years to fix this. He’s failed.” The bin of DRUGS is shown floating on the water all by itself. Pan back to Nehlen’s face: “I want to keep the cartels from killing our kids.”
Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District is a border district. It borders Illinois, though, not Mexico. Nevertheless, Nehlen spent some time walking the Mexican border in May with an editor from Breitbart.
As with the candidacy of Donald Trump, Breitbart has served as Nehlen’s staunchest media shill. But Nehlen’s had other support from the conservative media circuit. Conservative writers Michelle Malkin and Ann Coulter have campaigned for him. Sarah Palin, too, dedicated herself to “Cantoring” Ryan ever since early May, when Ryan first refused to endorse Trump before caving a few weeks later.
It was that stalled endorsement—“I’m not there right now,” Ryan said—that Trump had a little trouble getting over, even if Ryan did eventually join the team. Trump, on Aug. 2, at first refused to endorse Ryan’s bid ahead of his primary, mischievously telling the Washington Post that he was “not quite there yet.” This came a couple of days after Trump gave Nehlen a shoutout on Twitter.
The Ryan snub brought a whole new level of attention to Nehlen in the closing stretch of his campaign. That meant his usual mouthing-off on local radio shows picked up more attention than it might have otherwise. Consider this lovely sentiment expressed on Aug. 1:
“Well, then, the question is why do we have Muslims in the country?” Nehlen said, visibly and audibly shocking the two co-hosts.
“Are you suggesting that we deport all of the Muslims in this country?” Proft followed up.
“I’m suggesting we have a discussion about it, that’s for sure,” Nehlen answered, to a stunned pause from the hosts.
When Trump himself caved and endorsed Ryan on Friday in Green Bay, Nehlen was barred from entering the event as a spectator. He blamed the Wisconsin GOP for blocking him, but Trump’s people said later that they were the ones who turned him away.
Nehlen is an active practitioner of the nativist politics that Trump tapped into, perhaps accidentally at first. “I think they call it alt-conservatism,” as Ryan himself described it on a radio show on Friday. He meant alt-right, but yes: “That kind of dark, grim, indefensible comments are going to be clearly rejected and repudiated on Tuesday. I have a hard time seeing the thinking behind this. Unfortunately, we see some of it these days.”
Trump’s brand of politics hasn’t ushered many mini-Trumps into office: There is no cascade of Trump-inspired nationalist candidates picking off incumbents in primary races. The two most prominent GOP primary de-cleatings? A successful establishment-led campaign against Tea Party Rep. Tim Huelskamp in Kansas and another battle between two sitting members for a redistricted North Carolina seat—in which the Trump-endorsed candidate lost. Republican primary voters haven’t had much of a problem brushing aside the dingbats in their own districts or states. It makes it all the stranger that they’ve chosen one for their own nation.