House Speaker Paul Ryan may be controversial nationally, but if anyone doubts his standing with Republicans back home, this week pretty much set the record straight. When a Republican Senate candidate was caught on tape echoing anti-Ryan sentiments, leading conservatives in Wisconsin immediately rallied around the Speaker.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published a report on Wednesday based on an audio recording of Kevin Nicholson, who is running in the GOP primary to take on Sen. Tammy Baldwin next November, wading into criticism of Ryan at a party event in Jefferson County. Though he initially empathized with Ryan, after being pushed by two unidentified speakers, Nicholson conceded "the Trump issue is awful" and accused Ryan of having a "light footprint" in the state. Right Wisconsin has a full transcript available here, which largely shows Nicholson, who's earned the backing of a Super PAC tied to Steve Bannon, doing his best to walk a fine line but perhaps inadvertently revealing some anti-Ryan sentiments in the process.
Nicholson, a former Democrat with a compelling conversion story, called the original Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article "really poorly written" and "an attempt to create media controversy where there should be none." In analyzing the audio, Right Wisconsin author James Wigderson argued the full context actually made the gaffe sound even worse.
Nicholson has hedged a bit. "The man is Speaker of the House. He’s got a lot of things to do and a lot of different priorities, and I completely understand that," he said Thursday. "At the end of the day, he’s doing what he can to pass the president’s agenda, and I appreciate that."
Nicholson's main primary opponent, state Sen. Leah Vukimir, rushed to Ryan's defense. “Anyone who has spent any time in Janesville knows that Paul Ryan is home all the time and is 100 percent Wisconsin. Who will (Nicholson) attack next, Governor Walker?” Vukimir's campaign manager asked in a statement. That Vukimir jumped to Ryan's defense is a sound indication of his standing in Wisconsin — it's just bad politics for a candidate to run against Ryan, especially when that candidate is a newcomer who has yet to develop half the goodwill Ryan has with Wisconsin Republicans.
Adding to the pile-on, Ryan's colleague in the lower chamber, longtime Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., also offered a vigorous defense of his record, calling out Nicholson by name. "Speaker Paul Ryan has been a steadfast leader in Wisconsin and Washington in support of conservative ideals. Contrary to recent comments made by U.S. Senate candidate Kevin Nicholson, Paul's prominent footprint in Wisconsin is visible every day through the continued achievements of the many conservative leaders that he has helped elect, guide, and inspire," Sensenbrenner stated on Thursday. "The victories of 2016 would not have been possible without Paul’s tireless efforts, and he will continue his work on behalf of all Wisconsinites in 2018 to ensure we elect another sound conservative Senator. Any candidate seeking that office would benefit greatly from Paul's experience and leadership."
Conservative Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Christian Schneider slammed Nicholson on Friday. "Nicholson should blame the senator he is running against, Democrat Tammy Baldwin, for legislative inaction, not the guy in the other house who is getting stuff done," said Schneider. "The job of criticizing Paul Ryan should be left to Nicholson's former partners in the Democratic Party."
Recall that just last year, in the heat of Trump fever, a primary challenger with the backing of high-profile Wisconsin outsiders like Sarah Palin and Ann Coulter could only earn 15 percent of the vote to Ryan's 85 percent.
Over the past two decades, Paul Ryan has banked up a mountain of trust and support with Republicans back home. Even in these divided times, Ryan is no lightning rod for intraparty frustration among his fellow Badgers. If there's a lesson to be learned from Nicholson's gaffe, it's exactly that.