Paul Ryan hopes to avert primary surprise after Trump tweak

FILE - In this July 12, 2016 file photo, House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis. talks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington. Ryan reaffirmed his support for Donald Trump Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016, in his first comments since the GOP presidential nominee declined to endorse the speaker in an upcoming Republican primary. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

JANESVILLE, Wis. (AP) — House Speaker Paul Ryan had nearly $10 million in the bank and a primary opponent no one had heard of. Then Donald Trump got involved.

An expected walkover for the country’s highest-ranking Republican officeholder 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.

Paul 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.”

“I know (Ryan’s) going to win, but it sends a message,” Simenson said.

Ryan has been trying to downplay the race. He wasn’t hosting a victory party on Tuesday night. Instead, Ryan invited reporters to an event hall in Janesville where a podium with one of his campaign signs taped to it was set up in front of three rows of chairs. No balloons, bar or band.

No House speaker in modern political history has 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 House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in his surprise primary loss in 2014. 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.

Ryan had outraised Nehlen by a 17 to 1 ratio through the latest reporting period, and while Cantor was widely criticized for ignoring his district, that wasn’t the case with Ryan. He has made a point of returning to Janesville as often as possible to be with his wife and three children, and was initially reluctant to accept the speakership for fear it would keep him away from Wisconsin.

Nehlen 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 Sarah Palin and conservative provocateur Ann Coulter, with the latter appearing alongside Nehlen in the district over the weekend.

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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