It was a steamy summer night on June 10, 2014, when Eric Cantor, then the majority leader of the House of Representatives, suffered a stunning defeat in Virginia’s seventh congressional district. Despite his national profile, a healthy campaign war chest, and internal polls showing him leading by insurmountable margins, Cantor lost the Republican primary to Dave Brat, a little-known college professor running hard to the majority leader’s right on immigration, among other issues. When all the votes were counted, it wasn’t even close; Cantor lost by eleven points. The result sent shockwaves through Washington and served warning to even the most powerful and well-entrenched members of Congress: You could be next.
Twenty-six months later, Paul Ryan — Cantor’s close friend, erstwhile co-author, and fellow “Young Gun” — faced an eerily similar situation in Wisconsin’s first district. As speaker of the House, a two-time committee chairman, and the party’s 2012 nominee for vice president, Ryan has become synonymous with the “establishment.” So it was unsurprising, particularly in the anti-Washington climate of 2016, that he drew a primary challenge from businessman Paul Nehlen, who hoped to channel the country’s anger with the Beltway’s ruling class.
Nehlen followed much of Brat’s formula: He cast Ryan as an out-of-touch elite whose D.C. duties had blinded him to the concerns of his constituents; he accused the speaker of promoting an “open borders” immigration agenda that would endanger both the American worker and the nation’s security; and he recruited prominent tea-party voices to descend on the district in support of his symbolically significant candidacy.
But that’s where the similarities ended. Ryan crushed Nehlen in Tuesday night’s primary, 84 percent to 16 percent, holding onto the seat he first won in 1998 and sending a message to the rebellious grassroots that his brand of Republicanism won’t be easily erased by the populist wave that carried Donald Trump to the GOP nomination.
So how did Ryan, running in a similarly hostile political climate, avoid Cantor’s fate? Here are three explanations, gleaned from conversations with friends and allies of both men:
1. Ryan Didn’t Raise His Opponent’s Profile
Cantor’s team insisted throughout the spring of 2014 that he wasn’t in trouble, but their advertising strategy suggested otherwise. The majority leader spent heavily — nearly $1 million between April 1 and May 21, according to National Journal — on ads in his district attacking Brat as a “liberal college professor” who served on an economic advisory council under Democratic governor Tim Kaine. The approach backfired: Cantor was called out by fact-checkers who vouched for Brat’s ultra-conservative positions. To district voters, Cantor’s attacks made him look desperate — and triggered sympathy for a long-shot challenger whose name had not been widely known before the barrage of ads.
Ryan took a decidedly different approach. The speaker aired a series of ads in his district promoting his own brand, complete with voter testimonials, direct-to-camera promises about national security, and constituents reciting the pledge of allegiance. Not once did Ryan go negative in his advertising; Nehlen’s name was nowhere to be found. When Ryan took a more aggressive tone with Nehlen during interviews down the home stretch of the primary race — dismissing his opponent’s criticisms and suggesting that his support comes from the fringe “alt-right” — it was out of disgust rather than desperation. And even then, Ryan did not once utter Nehlen’s name, depriving his rival of the free publicity that Cantor gave to Brat.
Ryan’s approach was clearly the right one. He is enormously popular at home: His favorable-unfavorable score in June and July among Republicans and GOP-leaning independents was 85–8 statewide and 84–5 in his district, according to Marquette Law School’s poll. That goodwill owes not merely to Ryan’s influence inside the halls of Congress, but to a political style that preaches civility, decency, and positivity. Going negative on Nehlen would have been inconsistent with Ryan’s image; it also would have breathed life into his opponent and cast doubt on the legitimacy of polls showing the speaker with an overwhelming lead.
Interestingly, Trump’s high-profile (and short-lived) refusal to endorse Ryan did for Nehlen what the underdog candidate couldn’t do for himself: Draw national attention to a race he was losing badly. Ryan couldn’t control that. But it’s a safe bet that had he attacked Nehlen earlier in the race, reporters would have rushed to southeast Wisconsin to cover Ryan as Cantor 2.0 — creating the perception of a tight contest in the minds of some voters.
2. Ryan Couldn’t Be Cast as a Creature of Washington
Ryan never wanted to be speaker, primarily because the job required extensive travel that would take him away from his district and from his wife and three young children. So it was no surprise when, upon announcing his conditions for accepting the job, Ryan demanded that he be allowed to spend his weekends at home in Janesville.
The episode, whether intentionally or not, cemented perceptions of Ryan as a small-town everyman, one who stumbled into Washington almost by accident and wound up excelling at his job there, but still sleeps in his office during the week and comes home every weekend. This, combined with Ryan’s roots in the community — he’s a fifth-generation Janesville native, and the town is heavily populated with his family members — gives Ryan the reputation of a normal, accessible neighbor, even as he has worked in Washington for the past two decades and presently occupies the most powerful position in Congress.
Ryan has managed to seek and win one promotion after another, becoming the embodiment of a career politician, without ever appearing power-hungry.
In other words: Ryan has managed to seek and win one promotion after another, becoming the embodiment of a career politician, without ever appearing power-hungry. This was a constant struggle for Cantor, whose smooth talk and immaculate suits fit every caricature of an ambitious young politician. Despite growing up in Richmond and having deep family ties to the city, his every move up the congressional-leadership ladder contributed to his burgeoning image as a D.C. heavyweight. As his prospects to gain the speakership grew, so too did his reputation as someone who spent more time playing the inside game in Washington than representing his constituents in central Virginia. It wasn’t totally fair: The two-hour drive from D.C. to Richmond meant Cantor spent ample time in his district, accusations to the contrary notwithstanding. Yet his decision to spend the morning of June 10 in a Starbucks on Capitol Hill raising money for fellow members — rather than knocking on doors and turning out voters back home — became symbolic of a perceived disconnect with constituents that ultimately cost him his seat.
One reason Cantor became detached from his district: It was slightly redrawn after the 2010 census. In an effort to shield him from serious Democratic challenges in upcoming general elections, Cantor’s allies in the state legislature removed some heavily urban precincts from his district, replacing them with rural enclaves east of Richmond. The maneuver backfired: What was meant to deter a liberal opponent invited a conservative one. It was hardly a deciding factor in his loss — he underperformed in virtually every precinct — but Cantor, as a Jewish Republican, had long lacked a strong connection with some of his conservative and Evangelical constituents, and adding more of them to his district didn’t help.
Ryan has never had that problem. His district has changed very little since his first election — geographically, demographically, or culturally. He represents a slice of Wisconsin that is 82 percent white, mostly suburban, and overwhelmingly middle-class. His constituents are religious about two things — God and football — and their representative, who never misses a Sunday Mass, still prints schedules for the Wisconsin Badgers and Green Bay Packers on his campaign materials. Ryan is, in short, a representative — someone who looks, sounds, and acts like his constituents. He also manages to be both idealized and accessible: A hometown hero in the eyes of local Republicans, Ryan is the biggest thing to ever come out of Janesville. Yet everyone there still calls him “Paul.”
3. Ryan Wasn’t Hurt by His Immigration Stance
Experts disagreed over how much immigration — and specifically, the notion of Cantor supporting “amnesty” — contributed to his 2014 upset. Yet there was broad consensus that Brat’s attacks on Cantor, which were echoed by nationally known figures such as radio host Laura Ingraham, hurt him with the district’s most conservative voters.
Nehlen, inspired both by Brat and Trump, seized on the issue as the impetus for his candidacy. Borrowing provocative language from the GOP nominee — language that earned him the nickname “Mini-Trump” from Politico — Nehlen relentlessly prosecuted Ryan as a “globalist” who supports lenient immigration policies that boost corporate profits at the expense of America’s working class. The message, if disciplined, could have been highly effective: Ryan, an avowed free-trader and supporter of a pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants, could be vulnerable to a populist economic pitch in Wisconsin’s white, predominantly blue-collar first district.
#related#But Nehlen, campaigning in neighborly southeast Wisconsin, hurt himself by going much farther. He claimed that Ryan “is the most open-borders, pro-Wall Street, anti-worker member of Congress in either party.” He argued repeatedly that Ryan is “giving American jobs to foreigners.” He even staged a protest in mid July in front of Ryan’s home in Janesville, which is surrounded by bushes and a modest iron fence for privacy. “Paul Ryan, if you will not build a border wall for America, then I am asking you to tear down your wall,” he said at the time. “Don’t let one more American child die because Paul Ryan won’t secure the border.” (Breitbart.com, which boosted Brat’s candidacy in 2014, provided fawning coverage of Nehlen’s stunt.)
The over-the-top rhetoric didn’t resonate. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise: In Wisconsin’s April 5 presidential primary, more than 1,500 Republican voters were asked in an exit poll to identify the issue most important to them. Only 6 percent said immigration. On a separate question — What should be done with illegal immigrants living in the U.S.? — 61 percent said they should be offered legal status, and just 34 percent said they should be deported to their home country. Not coincidentally, Trump won 35 percent of the vote statewide, losing to Ted Cruz by 13 points. Trump performed even worse in Ryan’s district, taking 32 percent and losing to Cruz by 19 points.
That 32 percent, however, was double what Nehlen took on Tuesday.
— Tim Alberta is National Review’s chief political correspondent.