Paul Ryan averts primary surprise in Wisconsin

Scott Bauer
Associated Press

Janesville, Wis. — House Speaker Paul Ryan crushed an insurgent challenger in Tuesday’s Republican primary in Wisconsin, buoyed by close ties with his district voters and high popularity in the Badger State.

He was up 84 percent to 16 percent for businessman Paul Nehlen with 47 percent of the state’s precincts reporting.

The nine-term congressman was so confident he would beat Nehlen that he barely campaigned — even after Donald Trump expressed kind words for Nehlen before he belatedly endorsed Ryan last week.

An expected walkover for the country’s highest-ranking Republican officeholder had became one to watch Tuesday, with Ryan seeking to avoid the most shocking and unlikely of upsets against a political unknown hoping for a Trump bump.

Nehlen’s supporters hoped he would pull an upset, citing college professor David Brat’s stunning 2014 win over then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia.

Nehlen’s star rose after Trump praised him last week on Twitter, then later pointedly withheld his endorsement of Ryan. Trump relented just three days later after coming under criticism from GOP leaders, but the burst of publicity was priceless for Nehlen, an executive at a water filtration company.

A sampling of voters outside a polling place in Ryan’s hometown of Janesville found a majority backing Ryan.

Bob and Maureen Becker said they’re familiar with Ryan from the 40 years he’s spent in Janesville, and that he went to high school with their daughters.

“To me it was a no-brainer,” Bob Becker told the Janesville Gazette.

But Nehlen voters could be found, too. They included Joanne Simenson, who called Ryan “a big spender, just like the rest of them.”

No House speaker in modern political history had lost a primary, and Ryan is hugely popular in the southeastern Wisconsin district he has represented for nearly two decades. He crushed a protest candidate in the GOP primary two years ago, winning 94 percent of the vote. The only other time he had a primary challenger was in his first race, in 1998, when he won with 81 percent of the vote.

But Ryan responded quickly to Trump’s dabbling in his race, determined to avoid the fate that befell Cantor. Ryan’s huge financial advantage has allowed him to blanket the airwaves with ads, and he made the rounds on influential conservative talk radio stations as Trump threatened to steal the spotlight.

Los Angeles Times contributed.