Wis. Republican launches long-shot bid to oust Ryan

Wis. Republican launches long-shot bid to oust Ryan
© Paul Nehlen Campaign

Not long ago, Wisconsin businessman Paul Nehlen was a big fan of Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Sanders set to shake up 2020 race McCabe: No one in 'Gang of Eight' objected to FBI probe into Trump Unscripted Trump keeps audience guessing in Rose Garden MORE’s.

He pounded pro-Ryan signs in front yards and made phone calls on behalf of his congressman during Ryan’s 2014 reelection campaign. Nehlen even bought Ryan’s book, “The Way Forward,” and passed it out to friends as gifts.

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Today, Nehlen, a little-known political newcomer, is trying to oust Ryan, the sitting Speaker of the House, in the Aug. 9 GOP primary for Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District.

In a phone interview with The Hill, Nehlen rattled off a litany of grievances against Ryan, including his past pro-immigration positions and his work shepherding a trillion-dollar omnibus spending bill through the House last December.

Nehlen also accused Ryan of trying to push through a “bailout” for debt-ridden Puerto Rico; the Speaker — just six months on the job — insists that any such legislation would not cost taxpayers.

But there was one specific issue that lit the fuse of Nehlen’s congressional bid: Ryan leading the effort to give President Obama trade promotion authority (TPA) to make it easier to reach an international trade deal.

“When Paul Ryan came out in favor of the district-leveling, job-killing trade bill Trans-Pacific Partnership [TPP], I could not believe it. A year ago, he went for fast-track trade promotion authority for President Obama,” said Nehlen, an executive with water filtration company Neptune Benson who also runs a consulting business.

“That’s what set this whole thing in motion. … I could not stand by and watch that happen,” he added. “Exporting our jobs overseas with this trade bill and importing foreign workers to replace us in our jobs here at home.”

A Ryan campaign spokesman declined to comment for this story.

As Ways and Means Committee chairman last year, Ryan did spearhead the GOP effort to pass TPA through the House. But the Speaker has been much more critical of the TPP deal the Obama administration negotiated with other nations and is skeptical Congress will pass it.

Nehlen occasionally confuses TPA and the TPP in interviews.

Like Ryan, Nehlen is 46 years old, but that’s where the similarities end. Nehlen, who has never run for public office and is not well-known, is taking on one of the biggest stars in the Republican Party. Ryan served as Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012, and his House colleagues practically begged him to serve as Speaker after John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerCrowley, Shuster moving to K Street On unilateral executive action, Mitch McConnell was right — in 2014 Bill Clinton jokes no one would skip Dingell's funeral: 'Only time' we could get the last word MORE’s (R-Ohio) resignation.

Nehlen also faces a serious cash disadvantage against Ryan, a prolific national fundraiser. He’s loaned his campaign a “substantial” amount of money and acknowledges he’ll need help from outside groups like the Tea Party Patriots, which just endorsed him.

Tea Party challengers like Nehlen haven’t found much success in 2016. While outsider Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpJustice Department preparing for Mueller report as soon as next week: reports Smollett lawyers declare 'Empire' star innocent Pelosi asks members to support resolution against emergency declaration MORE has dominated the GOP presidential field, not a single GOP establishment figure in the House has been sent packing this cycle.

Of course, there is precedent for a GOP leader to be toppled in a primary. In 2014, Majority Leader Eric CantorEric Ivan CantorPelosi warns GOP: Next president could declare national emergency on guns Ousted GOP lawmaker David Brat named dean at Liberty University business school Trump, GOP seek to shift blame for shutdown to Pelosi MORE (R-Va.) was handed a shocking defeat by political upstart Dave Brat.

“If you look at Dave Brat’s campaign, he was outspent 40-to-1. He’s a hero to me,” Nehlen said.

Nehlen criticized Ryan, a former congressional aide who’s served in Congress for 17 years, as “the epitome of a career politician,” saying “he was grown in a petri dish in D.C. and climbed to the top of the D.C. food chain.”

But there were times during the interview Nehlen dodged questions like a veteran politician. He wouldn’t say how much personal cash he was loaning his campaign, declined to say who he would back for Speaker if he defeats Ryan and repeatedly refused to say whom he voted for in the Wisconsin presidential primary.

He did, however, say he would support Trump if he wins the GOP nomination.

“I’m not endorsing anybody or coming out for anybody. I’m for the people of the 1st District. I want them to have their voice heard,” Nehlen said.