After House Speaker Paul Ryan announced Wednesday that he was retiring, local Republicans began working to ensure that his Wisconsin district did not fall into the hands of Democrats — or a white supremacist who could win the GOP primary.
The party is likely looking to avoid a recurrence of what happened in Illinois, when a former leader of the American Nazi Party ran unopposed in the party primary of a heavily Democratic district and won the nomination by default.
Paul Nehlen, a businessman and activist who was suspended from Twitter in February after months of racist and anti-Semitic tweets, is the most visible candidate remaining in the First District primary. Nehlen is already familiar to local voters, having lost against Ryan in the 2016 primary 84%-16%, but the media coverage surrounding his racist statements has given him increased notoriety.
The Associated Press reported Wednesday that many local candidates who would not have challenged Ryan are already being considered, including former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and state Rep. Samantha Kerkman.
“Hey, it’s the year of the woman,” Kerkman told the AP. “There’s a lot to think about.”
Nehlen has already raised over $162,000 in individual campaign contributions, compared to $950 for the other remaining opponent, security consultant Nick Polce.
Ryan’s retirement is “good news for America, bad news for special interests who bought Paul Ryan’s vote,” Nehlen wrote on Facebook. “My focus has always been on YOU.” He also asked for campaign donations, noting that platforms like PayPal had suspended his account.
The Wisconsin GOP has condemned him and returned his donations. “Nehlen and his ideas have no place in the Republican Party,” spokesman Alec Zimmerman said in February. A spokesman for Ryan, Kevin Seifert, told the Associated Press that Ryan had no plans to endorse a candidate to replace him, but added that Nehlen’s “bigoted rhetoric and his reprehensible statements should disqualify him from holding any public office.”
The Republican Jewish Coalition issued statements praising Ryan and predicting that Nehlen would get nowhere.
“All Americans owe Speaker Ryan tremendous gratitude and appreciation for his service in the House and his leadership as Speaker,” RJC executive director Matt Brooks said. “He has accomplished great things for the nation. Although a fringe candidate with abhorrent neo-Nazi views was already running against the Speaker, we are very confident that with the leadership of the Wisconsin GOP, the eventual Republican nominee to fill Paul Ryan’s House seat will be someone who upholds the GOP’s best values and traditions.”
Vos, who has also condemned Nehlen as a “racist bigot,” is seen as the frontrunner for the nomination if he decides to run, former Wisconsin Republican Party executive director Brandon Scholz told the AP.
But winning the nomination may not be enough — the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination in the district, iron worker Randy Bryce, has raised nearly $5 million and is listed by the party as one of the top candidates to flip red districts blue.
Wisconsin GOP Scrambles To Keep Ryan’s Seat From Nehlen