JANESVILLE, Wis. (AP) — Donald Trump may be unwilling to endorse House Speaker Paul Ryan, but voters in his southeast Wisconsin district are eager to embrace their congressman.
“I like everything about him,” Marilyn Barlass, a 73-year-old Ryan supporter from his hometown of Janesville, said Wednesday. “I think he’s very sensible, very down to earth, and tells it like it is. He’s an all-around nice guy.”
Joan Haney and her husband, Jim, said they also plan to vote for Ryan in Tuesday’s Republican primary. “It would be hard to think that he wouldn’t win,” said Joan Haney, 73. “I can’t imagine.”
Ryan’s once sleepy race against little-known and underfunded challenger Paul Nehlen, an executive at a water filtration company, got a jolt when Trump refused to back Ryan.
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“I’m just not there yet,” Trump said in an interview with The Washington Post on Tuesday. The remark echoed Ryan’s own demurral regarding Trump, when the congressman told CNN on May 6, “I’m not there right now.” He eventually offered a tepid endorsement and urged the GOP to unite behind the nominee.
Trump’s smackdown came just days after Ryan defended the Muslim American parents of an Army captain killed in Iraq, pushing back on the presidential candidate’s attacks on the couple.
Trump’s rebuke of Ryan put him at odds with vice presidential candidate Mike Pence, who told the Fox News Channel on Wednesday that he had a long friendship with Ryan and was pleased to endorse him.
More important for Ryan is his standing in his district, where he was first elected in 1998 and remains popular. Ryan has won the backing of every local Republican lawmaker, four GOP sheriffs, Wisconsin Right to Life and the National Rifle Association. Ryan enjoys approval ratings among Republicans in the mid-80s, numbers that Trump has never been close to in Wisconsin.
Trump lost Ryan’s congressional district in Wisconsin’s April primary, on his way to a 13-percentage point defeat statewide.
Ryan, who sleeps in his office when in Washington, has made a point of returning to Janesville as often as possible to be with his wife and three children. His initial reluctance to accept the speakership last October was based on his concern that fundraising and other responsibilities would keep him away from Wisconsin.
“He’s the hometown boy,” said Linda Grotzke, 68, a Ryan supporter from Janesville. “I like everything he’s done. He’s very family oriented.”
Grotzke said she had no opinion of Nehlen, but felt like “everything he says is negative.”
Ryan has been trying to campaign without engaging with Nehlen. He is hoping to avoid a surprise defeat like the one House Majority Leader Eric Cantor suffered in 2014, when the Virginia Republican lost a primary to little-known tea party challenger Dave Brat. Cantor was widely criticized for ignoring his district. That’s not the case with Ryan.
“I’m really not that concerned about this simply from the fact I think the people here in the 1st District know who I am, what I do, and how and why I fight for them,” Ryan said in a June interview. “I don’t really stress this stuff too much. I’ve had primary opponents before.”
Ryan has outraised Nehlen 17-to-1 and has been tapping that nearly $15 million to blanket the airwaves with campaign ads that focus on national security and don’t even mention his opponent.
Tuesday’s primary is open, which means Democrats can cross over to vote in the race. But if they do that, they could not vote in any other Democratic primary. Still, Mike Mayfield, 56, of Beloit said he was thinking about doing that in hopes of defeating Ryan.
“I just don’t think he’s got the country’s best interests at heart,” Mayfield said. “He’s got his own interests at heart.”
Nehlen, an Ohio native who moved to Wisconsin eight years ago, said Wednesday he welcomed the support of Democrats and anyone else.
“Speaker Ryan’s repeated betrayal of Donald Trump is an act of sabotage against our party and an act of sabotage against our Republican electorate who selected Mr. Trump as our nominee,” Nehlen said at a hastily called news conference just down the hill from where Ryan lives. “Speaker Ryan’s actions once again indicate that has never cared about his constituents that he’s been elected to represent.”
Nehlen has the support of Sarah Palin, the 2008 vice presidential candidate, and former Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo. He 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.
No debates, or arm-wrestling matches, have been scheduled before the primary.
Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sbauerAP and find more of his work at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/scott-bauer