The Trump Effect on Today's Primary
(CNN) House Speaker Paul Ryan is aiming to move past a primary contest Tuesday that drew sudden national interest in recent weeks thanks to Republican nominee Donald Trump.
Just a week before the primary, Trump publicly thanked Paul Nehlen for his support and told The Washington Post he wasn't ready to endorse Ryan -- a move that came as payback for Ryan's slow-walked Trump endorsement in the spring.
Trump reversed course and announced his support for Ryan at a rally in Green Bay, Wisconsin, on Friday night. But it only came after he'd given major air time and attention to the little-known Nehlen. The GOP nominee went further Monday when he unveiled a tax package that closely tracked with proposals Ryan has backed in Congress.
Nehlen is a longshot: Polls in Wisconsin have consistently shown Ryan hovering above 80% support. And Trump lost Ryan's district to Ted Cruz by 19 percentage points in Wisconsin's presidential primary.
Some pro-Trump conservatives hope Ryan will suffer the same fate as former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, who lost a Republican primary two years ago to the little-known Dave Brat.
"I think Paul Ryan is soon to be 'Cantored,' as in Eric Cantor," 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin said on CNN in May.
In a subtle jab at Nehlen, Ryan never mentions his opponent by name. Following the resignation of Speaker John Boehner, Ryan only took the top job in the House after insisting he be able to return home each weekend to his family. As he campaigns across his district, he reminds voters he has deep roots in the community and mentions in passing he recently ascended to his new job as the highest ranking Republican in Congress.
Indeed, Ryan isn't Cantor. Marquette University Law School surveys in June and July have shown he's popular with Republicans -- with 84% of those in his district viewing him favorably.
Still, Ryan has shifted on some positions -- including trade, where his rhetoric now is tinged with some of the populism of Trump and Nehlen. Nehlen, though, has cast the speaker as supportive of trade deals see as harmful to US jobs by Trump.
At a town hall at a local tools manufacturer in Racine Monday, Ryan made the case for trade deals broadly, saying the US needs to engage on the world stage. But when he was specifically asked about the Trans-Pacific Partnership by a worker, he criticized the deal. Ryan said it needs to be renegotiated, and that the votes aren't there to pass it.
It's a reversal from Ryan's stance a year ago -- when he'd touted the potential benefits of the Pacific Rim deal and said he hoped it would get a vote in Congress.
Ryan even invoked Trump's name, saying even Trump is for "good deals," but Ryan qualified that statement by adding a more robust defense for open markets.
"I don't think there's a high likelihood (of the TPP's passage) right now because ... we don't have the votes to pass it because people like me have problems with some significant provisions of it that we believe need to get fixed," he said. "But here's the point: we do need trade agreements. I know a lot of people say just get rid of trade agreements, don't do trade agreements, and that's terrible. That's a problem for us."
Then, pointing to Trump's position, Ryan said: "The question is, is it a good agreement or not. And that's what, yeah, and that's what Donald Trump says is right, is we want good trade agreements. We don't want bad ones, we want good ones. But you've got to have, in an economy like this, good ones so we can make it here and sell it over there instead of making it there to sell it over there. That's the difference here."
Nehlen has tried to use the speaker's pro-trade views against him ahead of the primary.
There were about 100 blue-collar workers at this plant, where Ryan fielded a handful of questions from employees, including one on the Green Bay Packers' chances this year. Trump did not come up other than Ryan's mention of him as it relates to trade. Ryan did not take press questions.
In recent days, Ryan has blitzed Wisconsin's talk radio airwaves, conducting several interviews daily with local hosts -- many of whom were critical of Trump in the state's GOP presidential primary in May.
Ryan had dismissed the importance of a Trump endorsement Friday morning in another local radio interview with WISN's Jay Weber.
"I'm not going to try and psychoanalyze this stuff," the House speaker told Weber. "Honestly, the endorsement, personally the ones that I care about, are the ones from the people here in Wisconsin, my first congressional district employers. So you know I'm just going to rise above this stuff, and I'm not going to get involved in some sort of petty back and forth, I see no purpose in doing that."
Still, Trump offered his support later that night.
"We will have disagreements, but we will disagree as friends and never stop working together toward victory. And very importantly, toward real change," Trump said, reading off a prepared statement. "So in our shared mission, to make America great again, I support and endorse our speaker of the House, Paul Ryan."
At an event at a manufacturing plant in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, on Monday, Ryan waved off a plea from one Hispanic-American voter offended by Trump's comments who asked if there was still time to replace the GOP nominee on the ticket with a candidate like himself.
Ryan said Trump won "fair and square."