That House Speaker Paul Ryan easily won his congressional primary on Tuesday, by a nearly 70-point margin, should not have surprised anyone. Yet the political world was watching the result on tenterhooks, waiting for a surprise that never came. The fact that there was no upset was, in this season of political surprises, news of its own sort: a signal that perhaps the Trumpist ideology that has disrupted the Republican Party this year doesn’t work for anyone not named Donald Trump, and may not outlast him as a force in the GOP.
Trump, you may recall, belatedly endorsed Ryan last week, after initially saying he was not ready to do so, the latest move in the two men’s yearlong dance of mutual wariness and technical alliance. Ryan’s opponent, Paul Nehlen, styled himself along Trumpist lines, railing against globalism and “open borders” and depicting Ryan as a tool of Wall Street; he said he would consider deporting all Muslims and campaigned alongside such pro-Trump figures as Tom Tancredo and Ann Coulter. Several former Trump aides went to work for Nehlen’s campaign, hoping to engineer an upset along the lines of what befell former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in 2014.
Thus, even though Trump was technically on Ryan’s side, Nehlen’s candidacy was a test of whether there’s actually a latent constituency in the GOP base for a Trumpist ideology of populist nationalism. Some Trump fans believe he represents a larger philosophical movement to overthrow the longstanding priorities of the party’s donor class—that his victory in the presidential primary has revealed the secret preference of the party’s voters for an agenda antithetical to everything the elites hold dear. Ryan favors an interventionist foreign policy, cuts to entitlement programs, and immigration reform; Trump espouses the opposite.
Whether Trump wins or loses in November, this debate about what the party represents going forward is likely to consume, and potentially transform, the GOP. There’s a reason Ryan spent several hundred thousand dollars on ads in the primary: The political climate is so uncertain that no politician can afford to take anything for granted. Had Nehlen won or even overperformed the polls, in which he was drawing about 20 percent of the vote, that might have been a signal there was a bigger ideological revolt brewing on the right. Instead, he underperformed.
There are plenty of reasons not to read too much into this one result. Wisconsin Republicans, as they demonstrated in the presidential primary, are more reliably ideological than those in many other states, thanks to the influence of talk radio and conservative institutions. Ryan’s district joined the state as a whole in going against Trump and for Ted Cruz in the primary. And Ryan, unlike Cantor, is a diligent and popular home-state pol who attends closely to his constituents.
The signal sent by Tuesday’s result, though, is bolstered by other pieces of evidence this year. Establishment-friendly candidates have won Republican primaries across the board; another incumbent member of Congress endorsed by Trump in a primary, North Carolina’s Renee Ellmers, went down to defeat. On this evidence, Trump would seem to have neither political clout nor an ideological hold over the party whose nomination he’s taken.
That’s why Ryan’s victory is cheering news to the Republicans-in-exile who are hoping to take their party back once Trump passes into history. “This is Ryan’s party, not Trump’s,” the Republican consultant Patrick Ruffini tweeted after the results were in Tuesday. It’s too soon to say for sure, but the Wisconsin primary offered anti-Trump Republicans hope that their 2016 nominee may represent an anomaly rather than a revolution from within.