The ad shows a tattooed man stepping off a Harley, his back to the frame, a skull and crossbones on his vest.
Archival images of sprawling factories flicker onscreen.
“Before Paul Ryan went to Washington, Wisconsin was a manufacturing powerhouse,” the man says, narrating the ad. “Now, not so much.”
The man goes on to challenge Ryan to debate trade deals — or if not that, to an arm-wrestling match.
Business executive Paul Nehlen, R-Delavan, is the man in the online ad. He’s vying to unseat Ryan, the U.S. House Speaker and the most powerful Republican in Congress, in the Aug. 9 Republican primary election.
Nehlen’s long-shot campaign got a big endorsement last week from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. National conservative media pundits such as Michelle Malkin and Ann Coulter also are backing Nehlen.
But for all the attention garnered by Palin’s endorsement, there’s scant evidence the nine-term representative from Janesville, is in danger on his home turf.
Polls show Ryan — the Republican vice presidential nominee in 2012, and widely viewed as a potential future presidential contender — is extremely popular among GOP voters in his district. And Wisconsin GOP strategists and activists say they see no signs of discontent among his constituents.
“Paul Ryan is not at all vulnerable,” Wisconsin GOP strategist Mark Graul said. “He’s a thoughtful guy who is incredibly attentive to his district.”
In at least one respect, the challenge facing Nehlen is like what the presidential candidate he supports, Donald Trump, grappled with — unsuccessfully — in the Wisconsin presidential primary last month.
Trump came into Wisconsin, a state with a tightly knit, highly engaged Republican establishment, and tried to take on one of its favorite sons, Gov. Scott Walker. Walker backed Trump’s rival at the time, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
Nehlen is trying to do the same with Ryan, while taking a page from Trump’s rough-edged, populist playbook.
Like Trump, Nehlen is a brash business executive who has never held elected office. He’s senior vice president of operations at Neptune Benson, an international manufacturer of water-filtration products with operations in Beaver Dam.
Like Trump, Nehlen decries free trade deals he describes as job killers and rails against illegal immigrants. In an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal last week, Nehlen said he recently went to Texas to visit the Mexican border and speak with local law enforcement officials about border security and threats posed in the U.S. by Mexican drug cartels.
“I refuse to stand by while vicious Mexican drug cartels kill our children,” Nehlen said.
Like Trump, Nehlen is helping fund his own campaign — a step both say frees them from the influence peddling that accompanies traditional political fundraising.
Nehlen hammered Ryan for saying this month that he wasn’t ready to back Trump.
Palin cited Ryan’s remarks about Trump, who she endorsed, as her basis for supporting Nehlen. Trump, meanwhile, maintains he did not urge Palin to wade into Ryan’s primary.
Trump and Ryan last week took steps to mend their rift.
Trump was on the ballot last month in Wisconsin’s First District, which includes Janesville, Racine and Kenosha. He didn’t fare well. Cruz, who won the Wisconsin primary, beat Trump in the First District 51 percent to 32 percent, with Ohio Gov. John Kasich getting 15 percent.
First District Republican activists don’t see Ryan as endangered.
Ryan’s conservative critics “are national people that don’t realize how involved (he) is in the district, and how well-liked he is in the district,” said Erin Decker, chairwoman of the Kenosha County Republican Party.
Palin got headlines for predicting Ryan will be “Cantor-ed,” a reference to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, ousted in a GOP primary in 2014 by Rep. David Brat.
But Waukesha County Republican Party chairman John Macy doesn’t see the comparison. Cantor was viewed by some in his district as being detached and too focused on his leadership duties on Capitol Hill. Ryan has made a point to return to his district on weekends.
“Anyone who thinks this is an Eric Cantor situation is not comparing apples and apples,” Macy said.
Immigration, trade key
A Wisconsin resident since 2008, Nehlen has, until now, never run for elected office or a Republican Party post.
Nehlen, in the interview with the State Journal, declined to say who he voted for in the presidential primary. But since Trump became the presumptive GOP nominee, Nehlen has strongly supported him.
Like Trump, Nehlen has blasted free-trade deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed agreement between the U.S. and Pacific Rim nations. He also joined the New York businessman in opposing a new path to legalization for the 11 million-plus who are living in the U.S. without documentation.
Nehlen told the State Journal that Trump’s plan to build a wall on the Mexican border makes sense along some stretches of the border, but not others.
Asked about Trump’s plan to block all Muslims from traveling to the U.S., Nehlen neither disavowed nor embraced it. He said the country should halt “anyone we can’t vet,” Muslim or not, from entering the U.S. — but declined to answer when asked if Muslims should be permitted to enter the country if there’s no sign they pose a security threat.
Nehlen cites Brat, R-Va., and Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, as his role models in Congress.
A conspiracy theory promoted by Gohmert also caught Nehlen’s eye. Gohmert and four other members of Congress in 2012 urged national security agencies to investigate if the Muslim Brotherhood, an international Islamist group, had infiltrated the federal government.
The theory was widely condemned as baseless by experts and politicians across the spectrum, including by many Republicans.
But Nehlen thinks there may be something to it.
“It needs to be looked into,” Nehlen said.
Ryan, in an interview with the State Journal last week, chalked up his primary challenge to “outside agitators.”
“People are going to say things to get attention. Outside agitators will try to have influence,” Ryan said. “I’m really confident where I am.
“The people of this district know I put them first.”
Ryan told the State Journal he’s withholding support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership because he wants to see it improved. Ryan supported fast-track authority for the deal and has spoken positively about it, saying it’s “very important” and “has a lot of promise.”
In past election years, Ryan never faced a serious primary challenge. A new poll of this year’s primary in Wisconsin’s First District, conducted last week and released Wednesday, suggests Nehlen has miles to go to pose a threat to Ryan.
Seventy-eight percent of respondents to the Remington Research poll supported Ryan, while 14 percent backed Nehlen and 8 percent were undecided. It had an error margin of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
Other polls also suggest Ryan is extremely popular in the district.
In an area that nearly matches the district boundaries, Ryan was viewed favorably by 81 percent of self-identified Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, according to the March installment of the Marquette Law School Poll. The figures were provided to the State Journal by the poll’s director, Charles Franklin.
Among all poll respondents in that area — Kenosha, Racine, Rock, Walworth and Waukesha counties, and Milwaukee County outside the city of Milwaukee — Ryan also was viewed positively. Fifty-eight percent viewed him favorably, with 32 percent seeing him unfavorably.
“That’s not an indication that he’s in trouble,” Franklin said.
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