The Ryan Primary

By Jim Ellis

July 29, 2016 — House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Janesville) faces a Wisconsin primary challenge that is beginning to show movement, and he’s responding. While there is little chance Ryan loses re-nomination on Aug. 9, his opponent, businessman Paul Nehlen (R), is scoring points.

The Speaker, conscious of avoiding the political campaign mistakes that cost former Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA-7) his seat in Congress, responded this week with a positive ad television buy (above).

Cantor’s mistake was attacking his Republican opponent, now Rep. David Brat (R-Glen Allen). The Majority Leader’s offensive provided Brat’s insurgent campaign enough credibility to attract meaningful attention, resulting in significant numbers listening to his message.

In the same year, 2014, then-Speaker John Boehner (R-OH-8) was also defending himself against a little-known primary opponent. Boehner’s tactic was different. His strategy was to again become the region’s local congressman. In Boehner’s ads, the text never mentioned he was Speaker of the House. Though he would leave Congress less than a year after being sworn in for an 12th term, Boehner easily won that re-nomination battle with 71 percent support.

Ryan has chosen the latter example for his own campaign. At no time does his new bio spot ever mention that he is Speaker of the House. In fact, it doesn’t admit that he’s even in Congress. The script only refers to him as “Paul Ryan.”

Nehlen, a first-time candidate, has taken to the tactic of holding news conferences in front of Ryan’s home in Janesville, which is surrounded by a major wall and gate. Nehlen is hitting the Speaker on immigration, and uses the wall around Ryan’s house as an example of hypocrisy. He tells supporters and the cameras that ‘Paul Ryan has a wall around his house to protect his family, but doesn’t want you to do the same.” All the while he continually accuses his opponent of supporting “open borders.” (See Nehlen ad above)

When he was just 28 years old, future House Speaker Paul Ryan first won the southern Wisconsin Congressional district 18 years ago and secured for the Republicans what had been a swing CD. The 1st District hugs the area between Milwaukee and the Illinois border that includes the cities of Racine, Kenosha, and Janesville.

Even at that young age, Ryan had little trouble securing the Republican nomination in an open seat. He drew only one primary opponent that year, and vanquished him with a 81 percent landslide win. He then crushed Kenosha City councilwoman Lydia Spottswood in the November election, a woman the liberal establishment strongly supported and was originally favored to win.

In the current race, the only publicly available polling data came forth on July 9 when the Nehlen campaign released their internal PMI survey (424 likely WI-1 voters), and found the Speaker leading the poll’s sponsor only 43-32 percent. Just the ballot test numbers were released, so we don’t know how the question was formulated or what came before or after, but Ryan is clearly taking the contest seriously.

Armed with almost $10 million in his campaign account at the end of June, the Speaker will have every resource necessary to deflect any attack. The strategy and tactics in handling the primary challenge, however, will be the determining factor but Ryan appears to be making the right moves. While the Speaker will win re-nomination, his opponent will likely record a respectable percentage. How such an ending will affect Ryan moving forward in the national arena remains to be seen.

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