House Speaker Paul Ryan continues to walk a fine line on Donald Trump, stopping short of endorsing the presumptive GOP presidential nominee after their highly anticipated meeting today.
Ryan described that meeting as a “positive step,” and the two men issued a joint statement calling on Republicans to “unite around our shared principles, advance a conservative agenda and do all we can to win this fall.”
Ryan’s reticence to embrace the abrasive billionaire is not likely to score points for him within his party. When the Janesville Republican began his tenure as House Speaker, he had the support of nearly 70 percent of his party. Since then, his approval rating has fallen to 40 percent among GOP voters, while 44 percent of them have turned against Ryan.
Meanwhile, the party has quickly unified around Trump. A PPP poll released on May 10 found that 72 percent of Republicans now say they’re comfortable with Trump, while only 21 percent still say they aren’t.
But it different in Ryan’s 1st Congressional District, where voters clearly have their representative’s back. In truth, few Republicans or Democrats in Wisconsin found fault with Ryan’s statement last week that he was “just not ready” to back Trump.
“I think he’s a very smart, reasonable, honorable man, who is trying to get his party organized and whole again,” Lynn Westphal, a 55-year-old nurse and self-described independent, said of Ryan.
In an interview at a Main Street café, just across from Ryan’s Janesville office, Westphal said she thought Ryan was handling the situation “the best he can.” Patty Schumacher, a 59-year-old banker and independent, agreed.
“It’s going to take a bigger push than just him,” she said.
Her sister, 61-year-old Maryanne Kessel, chimed in: “But he’s a good one to lead it.”
Ryan was first elected to the House in 1998 and represents the southeast corner of the state along the Illinois border. He was tapped to be Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012 and was elected speaker in October.
His hometown of Janesville is a Democratic, blue-collar, union city in Rock County, still reeling from the closure of its General Motors plant in 2009. The downtown has lost its vibrancy, and the main employers are now Mercy Health System, the school district and the county. The town of around 65,000 is peppered with people who are Ryan’s old high school buddies, are friends with his wife or worked on his campaign.
“What I like about Paul is he calls a spade a spade,” said Dave Dobson, who leans Democratic but said he would back Ryan for president if he entered the race. “He doesn’t play political games.”
Dobson, a siding and window contractor, poured two overflowing spoons of sugar into his coffee as he joined his friends at the counter of Citrus Cafe. MSNBC played above the bar, running coverage of Ryan telling a reporter earlier that morning that he would step down as chairman of the Republican National Convention if Trump wanted him to do so.
Miguel Maravillo, a 40-year-old worker at a Mexican grocery store in Janesville who criticized Trump’s generalizations about immigrants, said it was brave of Ryan to voice his hesitation. Maravillo said in Spanish that many people criticize Trump in private, but they don’t say it “to the four winds.”
Trump didn’t do all that well in the district, finishing well behind Ted Cruz in the state’s April presidential primary. And even the Trump supporters here had few harsh words for Ryan.
“I think we need Ryan on board, but I understand,” said Kevin Anderson, a 49-year-old welder who lives in Beloit, just south of Janesville.
In a series of interviews here, no one gave much of a chance to Ryan’s primary challenger, businessman Paul Nehlen, even though Sarah Palin boasts that she’ll oust Ryan for his disrespect toward Trump by supporting his opponent. According to a recent poll, Republican voters in his district support Ryan by 78–14 percent.
Many of Ryan’s GOP constituents said they still held out hope that Ryan would change his mind and join the presidential race. That included Anderson, the Trump backer.
“I almost wanted it to go to a contested convention,” Anderson said.
But McCann, a pharmacist who usually votes Republican, says he is holding out for a Ryan candidacy in 2020.
“I don’t think this is his time yet,” McCann said.
Louis Weisberg contributed to this story.