Could Paul Ryan Go The Way Of Eric Cantor?

Jul 22, 2016


Many political experts say House Speaker Paul Ryan will beat his Republican challenger during Wisconsin's August 9 partisan primary. Matt Streb isn't so sure.

Streb, a political science professor at Northern Illinois University, notes that Sarah Palin endorsed Ryan's challenger, Paul Nehlin, because Ryan was slow to endorse Donald Trump, the GOP's presidential nominee. But Streb isn't thinking about Palin.

During an interview with WNIJ, Streb raised the specter of another House leader who lost a primary. "You're going to make me say Eric Cantor again," he laughs. Cantor, then-House Majority leader, was defeated by a Tea Party challenger in 2014. Streb says Ryan must be thinking about Cantor, too, because his own approval rating dipped below 50% in one poll. 

"We talked about how this is a partisan primary," Streb says. "It's not affiliated with a presidential primary, so it's going to be a notoriously low turnout. And with low-turnout primaries, anything can happen. That's what happened to Eric Cantor."

To find a sitting House Speaker who lost a general election, Streb says you have to go back more than two decades. "Tom Foley in 1994. In another huge year for Republicans, the Democratic Speaker ended up losing."

Even if Ryan wins the primary, Streb says, it's not entirely certain he'll win in November. "People think because it's Paul Ryan's district that it must be a Republican district," Streb says. "But it's not. Barack Obama actually carried this district in 2008."

The two Democrats running in the Aug. 9 primary are Tom Breu and Ryan Solen. "Neither has much in the way of money right now," says Streb.

He says Democrats have a better chance of winning the Wisconsin Senate seat now held by Republican Ron Johnson. Streb is watching a handful of Senate races which could flip control of the upper chamber. These include the Illinois contest between Republican incumbent Mark Kirk and Democratic U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth.

But the race in the Dairy State is noteworthy because it could feature a rematch between Johnson and former Sen. Russ Feingold.

Johnson is unopposed in the primary, while Feingold faces Scott Harbach; but nearly every expert -- including Streb -- expects Feingold to win. Much of that has to do with name recognition.

"Feingold is probably best known as the co-author of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill," Streb says. "But he was also the only Senator in 2001 to vote against the Patriot Act."

Feingold lost in 2010 to Johnson during the Tea Party wave. If Feingold wins this fall, Streb says, he would be the first Senator since 1934 to lose and retake his seat one term later. Streb expects a tight race.

"Feingold was in the lead in the early polls, which I don't put much stock into," he says. "Johnson has closed the gap a little bit."

Streb says there's added uncertainty with Donald Trump at the top of the ticket. "When we go back to the presidential primary, Trump got beaten badly in Wisconsin."

During the April 5 presidential primary, Ted Cruz got 48% of the GOP vote in Wisconsin compared to 35% for Trump.

One thing that didn't help Trump's campaign was lack of support from the state's most prominent Republican -- House Speaker Ryan -- who has since endorsed Trump.

Matt Streb will return in the coming weeks to talk about the Kirk-Duckworth Senate race, and U.S. House races in northern Illinois.