JANESVILLE, Wis. — House Speaker Paul Ryan rejected the idea that his easy win Tuesday over a longshot Republican primary challenger praised by Donald Trump spells danger for Trump’s presidential prospects in the swing state of Wisconsin.
All the huge primary win means, Ryan insisted, is that he’s really well-liked in the congressional district where he was born and raised and that he has represented since 1998.
Businessman Paul Nehlen had been courting Trump supporters and won praise from the Republican presidential nominee last week. But despite their strained relationship, Trump endorsed Ryan days later.
“I don’t think it means he’s doomed in November,” Ryan said of Trump. “I think it means right here in Wisconsin, people know me very, very well.”
Ryan had largely ignored Nehlen in what had been a sleepy primary before Trump thanked Nehlen on Twitter for his comments defending Trump. Nehlen won the backing of some prominent conservative figures, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, but it wasn’t enough to overcome Ryan’s popularity in his southeastern Wisconsin district.
Ryan won by about 70 percentage points, based on unofficial results.
“We knew we were going to do well,” Ryan said. “We got the votes we were hoping and expecting to get all along. The outcome is exactly what we were hoping for.”
This is Ryan’s first re-election win since becoming speaker last fall.
He went into the primary with massive advantages in name recognition and money. Ryan had outraised the unknown Nehlen by a 17 to 1 ratio through the latest reporting period, and was largely ignoring his opponent and was expected to win easily.
Trump changed all that the week before the primary, when he tweeted thanks to Nehlen for support while Trump was being vilified for remarks about the Muslim American parents of a U.S. soldier slain in Iraq. Trump also said he wasn’t ready to endorse Ryan, who had joined in that criticism.
Trump shifted course a few days later under heavy pressure from Republican leadership, but by then Nehlen had gotten a burst of national publicity.
Ryan responded with a blitz of radio appearances and added a pair of campaign stops the day before the election, determined to avoid the fate that befell House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, when the Virginia Republican lost a primary to a little-known tea party challenger.
Ryan had other advantages, including widespread popularity in the district. Ryan had also worked hard to maintain those home ties, traveling back to Janesville as much as possible to be with his wife and three children.
Nehlen, an executive at a water filtration company, first made a splash with a web video of him riding a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, showing his tattooed arms. He challenged Ryan to an arm-wrestling match if he wouldn’t debate him.
He 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 Palin and conservative provocateur Ann Coulter, with the latter appearing alongside Nehlen in the district the weekend before the election.
Nehlen said in a message on Twitter after the crushing defeat that his candidacy “damaged Paul Ryan’s ability to continue growing government. That’s the beginning of a fight we’re ready to get started.”