To really understand Paul Nehlen, the conservative underdog who is challenging House Speaker Paul Ryan in Tuesday’s GOP primary in Wisconsin, you should probably just watch this video:
With his tattooed biceps blazing, Nehlen rides a Harley-Davidson through rural Wisconsin, lambasts Ryan for supporting the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and then challenges the GOP leader to an arm-wrestling competition.
Elsewhere, Nehlen has been known to drive a bright yellow dump truck through Ryan’s district with the slogan "Get the Dirt on Ryan at DumpPaulRyan.com" painted on the side — or at least he did until he was cited for not carrying the proper driver’s license for a dump truck.
Wisconsin’s congressional primary is on Tuesday, August 9, and if not for Donald Trump conspicuously refusing to endorse Ryan in an interview with the Washington Post, many people likely wouldn’t have even known Ryan had a challenger. (After a huge controversy ensued, Trump endorsed Ryan at a campaign rally on Friday, though many of his supporters are backing Nehlen.)
Ryan has represented Wisconsin’s first congressional district since 1999, and despite the media fury over Trump’s praise of his opponent, he is still expected to win the primary in a landslide. But in the past week, Nehlen has been attracting outsize attention, in part because of Trump’s comments and in part because Nehlen echoes a lot of Trump’s rhetoric on immigration, trade, and anti-Muslim bigotry.
This weekend, Nehlen will make his final campaign push — with a lot more Trump supporters from around the country cheering him on. Ann Coulter is even coming to Janesville, Wisconsin, to stump for him.
Nehlen is basically Wisconsin’s Trump — with even more extreme views on Muslim Americans
Nehlen describes himself as a "Wisconsin executive, entrepreneur, and inventor"; he is the vice president of operations for a water filtration and disinfection technology company and owns a small business. He has a couple of water filtration patents, about which he goes into great detail on his campaign website.
His campaign argument is simple: Paul Ryan is a Washington insider whose policies are all too often indistinguishable from Hillary Clinton’s.
Among other things, Nehlen wants to scrap the TPP (which Ryan has supported). He also thinks the United States should be much more restrictive with its immigration policies, arguing that there are too many student, H-1B, and H-2B visas. In July, Nehlen and a group of four mothers who had "lost children at the hands of illegal immigrants" showed up at Ryan's Janesville home to make the case for stronger borders. Nehlen’s campaign said Ryan ignored the mothers.
Nehlen believes education should be governed on the local level and that "government is ultimately force, not your friend." He wants to "Make Budgets About Accountability Again."
If any of this sounds like Trump, it’s because their platforms are essentially the same. Just picture Trump as a Midwestern, tattooed Harley-Davidson enthusiast whose business passion is water filtration technology rather than real estate.
Nehlen is also right with Trump when it comes to attacking Muslim Americans. Take, for instance, Trump’s feud with Khizr Khan, the bereaved father of late Army Captain Humayun Khan. Here was Nehlen’s take on that:
"[The Khans] came here in the ’70s from Pakistan, right? [Humayun Khan] died before the Fort Hood shootings, the Boston Marathon bombings, the Chattanooga killings, San Bernardino Christmas party mass shooting, and the Orlando nightclub," he said on AM 560’s Morning Answer. "So circumstances have clearly, dramatically changed since Capt. Khan’s death, and, hey, those are Gold Star parents. Nobody’s saying they aren’t Gold Star parents; they lost their kid. But let’s be clear: Muslim Americans have been fighting on both sides of the war."
Nehlen went on to say that "Islam is the only major religion that encourages lying" (which, he argues, makes the vetting process for Muslim refugees particularly challenging). "If they lie, how do you vet something like that?" he said, adding that the country should have a "discussion" about having "Muslims in the country" at all.
Ryan, who has criticized Trump’s anti-Muslim sentiments, likewise censured Nehlen for his views. "Look, I hate to give such comments currency by even talking about them," Ryan told radio host Charlie Sykes. "This is not conservatism. This is not the US Constitution. This is not the Bill of Rights. Let's just be really clear about this. This is not Wisconsin. ... That kind of dark, grim, indefensible thinking is going to be thoroughly rejected and repudiated on Tuesday, I believe."
Nehlen will likely lose, but he is a sign of Trump’s influence on right-wing politics
Trump’s initial reluctance to endorse Ryan has elevated the prominence of this race. And Trump has given Nehlen a boost by saying kind things about him in the Washington Post interview: "Just so you understand, [Ryan’s] opponent is a big fan of what I’m saying. Big fan. His opponent who’s running a very good campaign obviously."
In recent months, prominent Trump supporters like Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, and Sarah Palin have all expressed their support for Nehlen. Ann Coulter is scheduled to appear at Nehlen’s campaign rallies in Janesville and Kenosha, Wisconsin, over the weekend.
Yet despite the national spotlight, Nehlen doesn’t seem to be catching fire in Ryan’s district. Ryan is well-liked — and recent polls have shown him leading Nehlen by as much as 66 points.
And while there might be a couple more Nehlen campaign signs popping up around town, it’s not surprising that the area, which heavily supported Ted Cruz in the primaries, isn’t interested in Nehlen’s Trump-esque brand of politics.
That being said, Nehlen remains an interesting character in today’s political climate: As much as Trump seems to be running for the presidency for himself, his campaign seems to be inspiring a crop of mini Trumps.