Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Can Challenger Defeat Paul Ryan?

Delavan businessman Paul Nehlen has Sarah Palin’s backing in bid for Ryan’s congressional seat.

By - May 16th, 2016 03:30 pm

Sarah Palin. Photo by Gage Skidmore [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Sarah Palin. Photo by Gage Skidmore [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

One more example of this year’s off-the-rails politics: The 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate wants the GOP’s 2012 vice presidential candidate to lose in Wisconsin’s August primary.

It’s a 1st Congressional District cage match between Congressman Paul Ryan and Sarah Palin, former Alaska governor and Tea Party princess. In other election years, you’d have to make stuff like that up.

Palin told CNN that, because Ryan initially said he “wasn’t ready” to endorse Donald Trump as the Republican Party’s presidential nominee, the U.S. House speaker and Janesville native should lose the Aug. 9 primary to his unknown challenger, Delavan businessman and inventor Paul Nehlen.

Palin was the vice president choice of Sen. John McCain, the GOP’s 2008 presidential candidate; Ryan was the running mate of Mitt Romney, the party’s 2012 presidential candidate.

Palin said Ryan should be “Cantored” – a reference to Eric Cantor, the former U.S. House majority leader from Virginia who lost a primary to an unknown Tea Party-fueled challenger, David Brat, in 2014.

Two questions:

First: When was the last time an incumbent U.S. House member from Wisconsin lost to someone from their party? An unofficial historical review of more than 90 U.S. House members who represented Wisconsin districts since 1900 suggests that may not have happened since 1946 — 70 years ago.

Second: how popular is Ryan in the southeast Wisconsin district he has represented since 1999? He was re-elected in 2014 with 63 percent of the vote; in 2012, 54 percent; in 2010, 68 percent; and in 2008, 64 percent. According to a May 9-10 Remington Research Group poll reported by, Ryan had a 78 percent to 14 percent lead over Nehlen among likely Republican primary voters,

In the March Marquette Law School Poll, 1st District registered Republicans gave Ryan a favorable rating of 81 percent to 12 percent, said pollster Charles Franklin. In that March 24-28 poll, 1st District registered Democrats rated him unfavorably by a margin of 31 percent favorable to 55 unfavorable.

Paul Nehlen. Photo from Nehlen for U.S. Congress website.

Paul Nehlen. Photo from Nehlen for U.S. Congress website.

In that same Marquette survey, 1st District Republican likely voters gave Ryan a slightly higher approval rating – 84 percent to 9 percent. Likely Democratic voters in the 1st District had a 65 percent to 22 percent unfavorable opinion of their congressman.

Franklin, who oversees the Marquette poll, said those numbers suggest that Ryan is not likely to be Cantored. Ryan’s poll favorability numbers do not “seem to indicate vulnerability by the usual standards,” Franklin said. “He is extremely positively viewed.”

Also, Franklin said, the 1st District is not a “special stronghold” of support for Trump. In the April primary, Trump was supported by 32 percent of Republican voters – slightly less than his statewide total of 35 percent.

One more factor, Franklin said: “Unlike Cantor, Ryan is not being caught by surprise. Indeed, the high coverage of Palin and others’ involvement in the race may mobilize Nehlen supporters, but it will also likely alert and mobilize Ryan supporters.”

Franklin saw only one wild card that could threaten Ryan, “a low turnout August primary on the heels of an unpredictable GOP national convention.” Ryan is scheduled to chair the Republican National Convention July 18-21 in Cleveland.

“In 2014, just 42,000 votes were cast in Ryan’s 1st Congressional District primary, compared to 149,514 in the presidential primary last month,” Franklin added. “So that is an opening for a highly mobilized minority to win, if the pro-Ryan majority failed to participate.  And there could be some threat of Democratic crossover voters participating in the August primary against Ryan, as they lack a competitive primary.”

Nehlen needs all the help he can get running against the top elected GOP official in Washington. Nehlen, who told MSNBC last week he “welcomed” Palin’s endorsement, has a May 27 fund-raising event scheduled with conservative author Michelle Malkin in Pleasant Prairie.

Nehlen’s campaign Website summarizes his themes this way: “Nehlen will reclaim Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District for We the People, put an end to Paul Ryan’s cronyism and corruption, and work hard to secure our borders and ensure enforcement of existing immigration laws.” He also opposes Ryan on trade issues.

“Paul Ryan doesn’t have the solution because he’s not a business guy,” Nehlen told MSNBC.  “Paul Ryan’s been a career politician.”

But Ryan told Janesville radio talk-show host Stan Milam he isn’t worried about Palin’s call for his political exile. “I’m doing just fine … I’m not sweating that stuff.”

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at

8 thoughts on “The State of Politics: Can Challenger Defeat Paul Ryan?”

  1. JJ says:

    Paul Ryan votes with Obama on all the major issues of our time that hurt american workers

  2. Casey says:

    I’m only in my 30’s but this is the best political season I have ever followed. Watching these two parties turn on themselves is great entertainment.

  3. keith reiss says:

    Certainly and we do hope so. Paul is a disappointment.

  4. M says:

    Hey, I don’t recall Sarah Palin even having any presence at the GOP convention (did I miss that sideshow?). So her influence is minimal at best.

    Ryan may have twisted himself into a pretzel to cow-tow to Trump, and many say he will regret that. But there’s a snowball’s chance in hell he’ll lose his seat.

  5. Lizzy says:

    I hope the people of Wisconsin do the right thing and vote out Paul Ryan.

    Paul Ryan is a Democrat pure and simple. He has given Obama everything O has wanted, the two of them are despicable, they only care about themselves, not us.

    Help the rest of in other states who are suffering under these lawless, terrible politicians. Please vote Paul Ryan out of office. Thank you.

  6. Vincent Hanna says:

    I don’t even like Paul Ryan, but yes please vote for the man who has Ann Coulter at his rallies and talks about deporting all Muslims. That guy isn’t despicable at all.

  7. AG says:

    Paul Ryan is the symbol of why there is no compromise or working together in politics anymore. They end up being vilified by both parties rather than just one. If it weren’t for his original constituents that make up the majority of his district, aka the people who really knew him personally in Janesville and the surrounding areas, that know he is a man of integrity, intelligence, and one of the few non-corrupt politicians in our day… he would have been voted out long ago.

  8. Vincent Hanna says:

    Just this morning NPR did a segment on this race that included bits from Nehlen’s rally and his recent Fox News appearance. He sounds insane, ranting and raving about Ryan being a “soulless Globalist” and “the most pro-open borders member of Congress.” The man who voted for the (idiotic) fence is too pro-illegal immigrant for Nehlen and his ilk. Unreal.

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