An early-May poll showed Paul Ryan’s primary challenger with the support of 14% of voters in Wisconsin’s 1st District.
Earlier this week, Paul Nehlen, the Wisconsin businessman looking to unseat the House speaker, wound up with a near identical level of support — just 15.9% — in the Tuesday primary.
Those numbers could prove telling in not only how Donald Trump will perform in November, but how Trumpism could translate without Trump at its helm.
In the run up to his primary, Nehlen received the backing of many of Trump’s most prominent supporters — such as conservative author Ann Coulter and former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin — while some of the more “alt-right” media outlets providing Trump with outlandishly favourable coverage (Breitbart, Drudge Report) used similar language to describe Nehlen as they did the Manhattan billionaire. Fox News host Sean Hannity toyed with providing an endorsement to Nehlen. In each case, polls showing unfavorable results for the candidate of their backing — polls that in Nehlen’s case proved almost entirely accurate — were ignored.
“Ryan’s political career is over but for a miracle because he has so disrespected the will of the people,” Palin said on CNN in May while Ryan was still debating whether he should endorse Trump.
“This man is a hard-working guy, so in touch with the people,” Palin later said of Nehlen. “Paul Ryan and his ilk … They feel so threatened at this point that their power, their prestige, their purse will be adversely affected by the change that is coming with Trump and with someone like Paul Nehlen, that they’re not thinking straight right now.”
Warning that there’s a “natural risk” of associating the results of a House district and try to use it to tell a story about the broader electorate, Matt Mackowiak, a GOP strategist and founder of the Potomac Strategy Group, told Business Insider that many on the farther side of the right wing “damaged their credibility” on Trump with their assertions in the Ryan/Nehlen race.
“I think the commonality is that there is that there’s a small circle of, I even hate to hesitate to use the word conservative because I don’t think it’s appropriate, but there’s a small circle of Trump-boosters in the conservative media that are just true believers,” Mackowiak said. “They won’t even consider any evidence or any arguments to the contrary. And so they had an immense amount of over-confidence in the Ryan congressional race.”
Ryan is an unusual member of the House in that he’s both in an extremely high-profile position and that he still makes trips back to his district every weekend, Mackowiak added, saying that he’s a good congressman in addition to being House speaker.
“In a way, their overconfidence really met its demise in probably the single worst congressional district for them to run an outside challenger in,” he said. “I think you can make an argument that they have damaged their own credibility with the over-the-top statements they used in trying ot make that race appear competitive. It does make you wonder if they’re overstating the race in that case, if they’re also not overstating the case in the presidential race.”
The draw of Nehlen to the high-profile Trump backers was that the Wisconsin businessman’s platform was nearly identical to Trump’s, with immigration and trade being the top two priorities. Trump himself would tip his hat to Nehlen earlier this month while withholding an endorsement of Ryan that would come days later.
“If you look at the closed circle of Trump-boosters, high-profile Trump boosters — Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter, Drudge, Breitbart obviously — you could take the same language they used about Trump and they applied it to Nehlen, and that applies to both ideological and policy and their own sort of political analysis of the race,” Mackowiak said. “To me, their overstatements in the Nehlen race should be a flashing yellow to anyone who wants to listen to their analysis or their predictions about Trump’s political strength right now.”
Tim Miller, who formerly worked as communications director for Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign, told Business Insider that the election as a whole has served as a “wake-up call” to many in the media that “their influence isn’t as great as they think.”
“You know on the one hand, Nehlen had all this support from the alt-right conservative media to no effect,” he said. “On the flip side, the big name mainstream Republican conservative media types were all against Trump in the primary to no effect.”
“I hope that the Nehlen blowout and the impending Trump blowout will be a wake-up call to the Trump cheerleaders in the media, but I’m not too optimistic,” he continued.
The other question the Ryan/Nehlen race bring about is whether Trump’s platform — which was Nehlen’s platform — can be successful without Trump at the helm.
As the polling showed, even the support of Trump’s most fervent backers could barely move the needle with Nehlen while the bombastic Trump was able to capture a nationwide nomination with support from similar corners.
“Oh there’s no question,” Mackowiak said of whether Trumpism needs Trump to be successful as a platform. “Trump’s campaign has been all about himself, all about his larger than life personality, his own brand, his own celebrity.”
Trump had advantages that “no other outside candidate could have,” he continued.
“I do think there’s some resonance on immigration and trade and perhaps on non-interventionism with a portion of the electorate,” he continued. “I just think there’s a high-floor and a low-ceiling. [Trump] always falls between 35% and 42% of the electorate. Nehlen doesn’t have Trump’s name identification, his celebrity, his ability to dominate the media. That was much more of a traditional outsider challenger that the uphill battle that taking on the incumbent would always require.”
Miller noted that Wisconsin as a whole voted for Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas — and not Trump — in the primary, a sign that the state could be uniquely inhospitable to the alt-right populist movement.
What he dubbed as “mini-Trump’s” are sure to run for offices across the country, but Miller thinks they will only be able to find success in certain areas.
“I think the Trump message is not one that works in states where there’s high degrees of family cohesion and church attendance,” he said. “It doesn’t really work in the suburbs. So in some places around the country, I think that’s going to be a failure. In other places, I think you’re going to see some mini-Trumps that have success.”
He called the assertion that Trumpism can only be successful with Trump “a lot of wishful thinking” that “hasn’t really been tested,” but added that to win on the Trump platform in a Hose or Senate race is particularly hard if you don’t have the “oversized personality of Trump.”
Where it might be easier to repeat, and what he fears, is on the presidential level.
“We’ve been fooled once by Trump,” he said. “And I don’t want to be fooled again looking at 2020 thinking this was sort of this one-time black swan.”
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