Inside Ryan's primary strategy

Last month, Paul Nehlen stood in front of Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanAmash: Trump incorrect in claiming Congress didn't subpoena Obama officials Democrats hit Scalia over LGBTQ rights Three-way clash set to dominate Democratic debate MORE’s stately brick home in Wisconsin, channeled his inner Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says he doesn't want NYT in the White House Veterans group backs lawsuits to halt Trump's use of military funding for border wall Schiff punches back after GOP censure resolution fails MORE, and demanded that the Speaker build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to keep out undocumented immigrants.

“Paul Ryan, if you will not build a border wall for America, then I’m asking you to tear down your wall,” Nehlen, Ryan’s primary challenger, said in Janesville.

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“If you will not build a wall to honor the mothers and fathers of the dead,” he continued, “if you will not build a wall to protect our children, then, sir, you should tear down your wall and show everyone that you will live under the same conditions as they do.”

Ryan never touched his wall. In fact, the 46-year-old father of three didn’t even acknowledge that Nehlen and his supporters had staged a rally in front of his home. 

Just nine months on the job as Speaker, Ryan and his campaign team are trying to avoid the mistakes made by Virginia Republican Eric CantorEric Ivan CantorMeet Trump's most trusted pollsters Embattled Juul seeks allies in Washington GOP faces tough battle to become 'party of health care' MORE, the House majority leader and fellow “Young Gun” who two years ago saw his political career abruptly ended by a little-known Tea Party challenger named Dave Brat.

Unlike Cantor, who ran a spate of negative TV ads against Brat, Ryan hasn't directly engaged with Nehlen in media interviews or campaign ads — fearing it could backfire and boost the profile of the poorly funded political newcomer.   

Instead, Team Ryan's TV ads have focused on national security and trust, two issues important to Wisconsin voters. Separate from the campaign, the Speaker’s office has been pumping out videos touting the bond he shares with his mother and his positive election-year agenda dubbed “A Better Way.”

He’s now second in line to the presidency, but Ryan also has made a point to fly back home to the district nearly every weekend to meet with constituents and see his family.

By contrast, Cantor, a big-league national fundraiser who was supposed to succeed John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerIs Congress retrievable? Boehner reveals portrait done by George W. Bush Meadows to be replaced by Biggs as Freedom Caucus leader MORE as the next Speaker, was accused of losing touch with his constituents. On the morning of his 2014 election, Cantor was spotted hobnobbing with donors in a Capitol Hill Starbucks rather than shaking hands with voters back in Richmond.

Cantor raised $5.5 million that election cyle, 26 times more than Brat, the Randolph-Macon College economics professor who had never run for public office. But Brat prevailed.

“Ryan is not going to let himself get Cantor'd,” said GOP strategist John Feehery, a former communications director for former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) who has known Ryan for two decades.

“You don’t want to build up [Nehlen’s] name ID because most of his constituents don’t know who he is,” added Feehery, who is also a regular contributor to The Hill. “That was the mistake Cantor made. They ran ads attacking his opponent and it raised his name ID, and it turned out to be a huge mistake.”

There are outside forces at play in Ryan’s primary, however. On Monday night, Trump tweeted praise for Nehlen after Ryan tweaked Trump for attacking the Muslim parents of a U.S. Army captain killed in the Iraq War. Then on Tuesday, Trump took things a step further, telling The Washington Post he wasn’t ready to back Ryan in his primary against Nehlen. 

“I like Paul, but these are horrible times for our country,” Trump said. “We need very strong leadership. We need very, very strong leadership. And I’m just not quite there yet.”

It was an unprecedented move for the Republican presidential nominee to interfere in the primary of the sitting Speaker of the House, the nation’s highest-ranking Republican elected official. But it was also a bit of political payback for Trump, as Ryan had initially refused to endorse Trump once he clinched the nomination, saying, “I'm not there right now.”  

Now, some are casting Ryan's primary as a proxy war with Trump. 

Conservative author and pundit Ann Coulter said she’d stump with Nehlen in Wisconsin on Saturday; conservative blogger and columnist Michelle Malkin spoke at a Memorial Day rally Nehlen held earlier this year. 

“The reason I’m here is not because I hate Paul Ryan. …” Malkin told the crowd. “I’m here on this Memorial Day weekend because I absolutely support what Paul Nehlen is doing. It takes guts. It is a David and Goliath battle.

“It is a battle not only against the establishment media, it’s not only a battle against the wacky leftist, it is a huge battle against the GOP establishment that does not want to acknowledge that more and more of you are sick and tired of the betrayals.” 

Nehlen, an executive with a water filtration company, has sought to tap the same populist message that propelled Trump, another political novice, to the Republican nomination.

The challenger has attacked Ryan’s past support of immigration reform, has characterized Ryan’s bill to aid debt-ridden Puerto Rico as a “bailout” and has railed against Ryan’s work on “job-killing” free-trade deals — something Trump has repeatedly blamed for economic problems afflicting Rust Belt states.   

Last year as Ways and Means Committee chairman, Ryan did shepherd through legislation giving President Obama greater authority to negotiate trade deals. But the Speaker has been more skeptical about the Pacific Rim trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, saying it doesn’t have the votes to pass Congress this session.

Ryan wasn’t available to comment for this story, but campaign aides pointed out that the Speaker is backed by the 1st Congressional District’s four GOP sheriffs, its 16 state legislators, the Racine Tea Party, Wisconsin Right to Life and the National Rifle Association.

And Ryan has been barnstorming the district in recent days, making stops at local county fairs, the Dousman Derby Days and a visit to Racine’s party headquarters Saturday with Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonAmbassador Gordon Sondland arrives on Capitol Hill for testimony in impeachment inquiry GOP cautions Graham against hauling Biden before Senate Sondland could provide more clues on Ukraine controversy MORE (R-Wis.), who is in a tough reelection fight. In the homestretch, Ryan is meeting with business leaders in Racine, supporting firefighters in Kenosha and doing local radio interviews. 

Most political observers don’t think the race will even be close. Recent polls have showed Ryan with a massive lead; a Washington Free Beacon poll from May showed Ryan ahead by 73 points.

Reached on his cellphone Tuesday, Nehlen said he would call The Hill back but never did.

“Paul Ryan has been in Congress for 18 years. He is the epitome of a career politician. He was grown in a Petri dish in D.C. and climbed to the top of the D.C. food chain,” Nehlen told The Hill in an interview earlier this year.

“He’s trying to wow us with the wow factor. We’re not wowed here in the 1st District.”

Feehery, who went to college in Wisconsin, said the rally Nehlen staged front of Ryan’s home may have backfired 

“That doesn’t work in ‘Wisconsin Nice.’ It’s way beyond the pale. It’s outrageous,” Feehery said.

Nehlen’s “not a politician; he’s a provocateur. I’m assuming Ryan’s constituents can tell the difference.”