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 evidence from Tuesday’s result, though, is bolstered by other pieces of evidence this year.