What should have been a fairly routine primary challenge for House Speaker Paul Ryan has now become a symbol of Republican Party problems: A fight pitting the establishment against GOP rebels, and their controversial presidential nominee against Washington leadership.
Before last week, few people even knew — or cared — that Ryan's primary for re-election was approaching. But when Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said he wasn't ready to endorse Ryan and then praised his Republican challenger, Paul Nehlen, the political spotlight shined directly on Tuesday's contest.
RELATED: Paul Ryan through his career
Paul Ryan through his career
Paul Ryan through his career
Speaker of the House Denis Hastert (L) administers the oath of office to Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin as his family looks on January 6, 1999 at the start of the 106th Congress. The oath is a recreation as the formal oath is administered to the entire congress as a body on the floor of the House. (photo by Rex Banner)
UNITED STATES - DECEMBER 12: Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., speaks at a news conference in which House Republican leaders called for Permanent Tax Relief. (Photo By Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty Images)
KRT US NEWS STORY SLUGGED: SOCIALSECURITY-DISCUSSION KRT PHOTOGRAPH BY GEORGE BRIDGES/KRT (April 14) Conversation on Social Security between Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), shown, and William Novelli, head of AARP, April 5, 2005 (lde) 2005 (Photo by George Bridges/MCT/MCT via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JULY 22: MEDICARE BRIEFING--Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., speaks at a Cato Institute briefing on Medicare reform in the Rayburn House Office Building. Tom Miller, director of Health Policy Studies at Cato, looks on. (Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - SEPTEMBER 24: Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) questions Peter Orszag, director of the Congressional Budget Office, during a hearing on Capitol Hill about the impact of recent market turmoil on the federal budget on September 24, 2008 in Washington, DC. Orszag reported that while the impact is currently unknown, it is likely to be substantially less than $700 billion. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - APRIL 27: House Budget Committee ranking member Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) (R) delivers an opening statement during a conference committee meeting with Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND) (L) and House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt (D-SC) in the U.S. Capitol April 27, 2009 in Washington, DC. House and Senate lawmakers have already struck a tentative deal on the FY2010 budget resolution and they hope to file a conference report after today's meeting. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - MARCH 19: (L-R) U.S. House Minority Whip Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA), Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) listen during a news conference on the health care legislation March 19, 2010 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The House will vote on the Health Care Reform Legislation on Sunday, March 21. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Representative Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin and chairman of the House Budget Committee, speaks during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, April 5, 2011. U.S. House Republicans today unveiled a plan to overhaul the federal budget and slash the deficit in coming years by about three-quarters, with a $6-trillion cut in spending and 25 percent cap on tax rates. Photographer: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg via Getty Images
MEET THE PRESS -- Pictured: Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) left, and moderator David Gregory, right, appear on 'Meet the Press' in Washington, D.C., Sunday, April 10, 2011. (Photo by William B. Plowman/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
MILWAUKEE, WI - APRIL 01: Republican Presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) jokes with U.S. Rep Paul Ryan (C) (R-WI) during a pancake brunch at Bluemound Gardens on April 1, 2012 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. With less than a week before the Wisconsin primary, Mitt Romney continues to campaign through the state. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 26: House Budget Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) is introduced before speaking about 'America's Enduring Promise,' and the federal budget, in a speech at Georgetown University April 26, 2012 in Washington, DC. During his speech, Ryan said that his proposed budget confronts the nation's growing $15 trillion debt before it impacts future generations of Americans. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
NORFOLK, VA - AUGUST 11: Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (L) jokes with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) (R) after announcing him as the 'next PRESIDENT of the United States' during an event announcing him as his running mate in front of the USS Wisconsin August 11, 2012 in Norfolk, Virginia. Ryan, a seven term congressman, is Chairman of the House Budget Committee and provides a strong contrast to the Obama administration on fiscal policy. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 14: Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., Vice Presidential candidate, waves to the crowd after addressing the Values Voter Summit at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Woodley Park. Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
NEWPORT NEWS, VA - SEPTEMBER 18: Republican vice presidential candidate, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), pauses as he speaks during a campaign rally at Christopher Newport University September 18, 2012 in Newport News, Virginia. Ryan continued to campaign for the upcoming presidential election. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 22: Republican vice presidential candidate, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) hugs waitress, Lourdes Alcerro, during a campaign stop at Versailles restaurant in the Little Havana neighborhood on September 22, 2012 in Miami, Florida. Ryan continues to campaign for votes across the country. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (R) and running-mate Paul Ryan share a laugh as they are introduced at a campaign rally September 25, 2012 at Dayton International Airport in Vandalia, Ohio. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GettyImages)
Representative Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin, arrives at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015. Ryan said he'd be willing to run for speaker of the U.S. House if Republicans unify behind him now, end leadership crises and let him continue spending time with his family. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Representative Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, center right, walks down the steps of the U.S. Capitol building following a vote in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, Oct. 9, 2015. Ryan is under heavy pressure from fellow Republicans to run for U.S. House speaker after a hard-line faction forced Speaker John Boehner to resign and his top lieutenant to drop out of the race. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Representative Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin, walks to a meeting in the basement of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015. Ryan is set to meet with a group of House conservatives Tuesday as he weighs a potential run to replace Speaker John Boehner under pressure from fellow Republicans. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Representative Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, center, talks to the media after walking out of the U.S. Capitol building following a vote in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, Oct. 9, 2015. Ryan is under heavy pressure from fellow Republicans to run for U.S. House speaker after a hard-line faction forced Speaker John Boehner to resign and his top lieutenant to drop out of the race. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 20 - Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., speaks at a news conference following a House Republican meeting, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015. Ryan is stating that he will run for speaker only if he receives enough GOP support by the end of the week. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)
US Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, awaits the arrival of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin for a meeting at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, December 10, 2015. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB / AFP / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 10: House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) holds his weekly press briefing on Capitol Hill on December 10, 2015 in Washington, D.C. Paul Ryan spoke on topics including Donald Trump and the spending bill. (Photo by Allison Shelley/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 15: Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, (R-WI) speaks during a Politico interview at the Grand Hyatt on December 15, 2015 in Washington DC. Ryan was interviewed by Politico's Chief White House Correspondent Mike Allen during a Politico Playbook Breakfast. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) (L) holds ceremonial swearing-in for Representative-elect Ralph Norman (R-SC) on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., June 26, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) speaks after Senate Republicans unveiled their version of legislation that would replace Obamacare on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., June 22, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan introduces his new tax policy at the National Association of Manufacturers Summit in Washington, U.S., June 20, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan visits members of the Republican team prior to the Congressional Baseball Game at Nationals Park in Washington, U.S., June 15, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan speaks to the press about President Donald Trump, former FBI Director James Comey and Russia investigations as Republican Conference Chairman Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R) looks on after a closed meeting of the Republican leadership of the House of Representatives on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. May 17, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) listens as U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with members of the Republican Congressional leadership at the White House in Washington, U.S., June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
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While Ryan remains a heavy favorite, national reporters descended upon Wisconsin's first congressional district, which he has represented in Congress for 16 years, to tell the tale of what could be the latest and greatest upset of a member of Republican leadership (House Majority Leader Eric Cantor unexpectedly lost his primary to upstart and college professor Dave Brat in 2014).
Ryan first failed to immediately endorse Trump when the businessman had all but locked up the nomination earlier this spring, and then continued to criticize some of his policies and statements, including his Muslim ban and his public fight with the Khans, the Gold Star parents who spoke at the Democratic convention.
Then Trump returned the favor. When asked by The Washington Post a week ago, Trump said wasn't sure if he was ready to endorse the speaker.
Nehlan, who spent some of his career relocating businesses from Canada to the U.S., has adopted some of Trump's signature ideas. He has been highly critical of free trade agreements, including the Trans Pacific Partnership, and highly supportive of Trump's proposed wall along the southern border. He has also made central to his campaign plank is his critique of special interests and the so-called donor class.
"All we have to do is cast one ballot on Aug. 9. With your one vote, you can stop amnesty for good. With your one vote you can stop TPP. With your one vote you can end rule by corporations ... You can end the serfdom to special interests and become free, safe and secure," Nehlen said in an online campaign video.
Nehlen has also embraced some of Trump's most divisive language, including his focus on people killed by undocumented immigrants. Telling the story of a hypothetical young American girl, he warned of dashed dreams, saying, "maybe she'll be killed by an illegal immigrant in a car crash, or a home invasion, or a vicious violent assault — the kind that happens to men and women across the country each year."
For his part, Ryan has ignored that he even has a primary. He held an event in Racine, on Tuesday, but he has not responded to any of Nehlen's attacks. He didn't even respond to Trump when the he refused to endorse him.
Ryan did, however, take the time on Monday to say he disagreed with Trump on international trade, responding to the nominee's big economic speech that called for "Americanism," over globalism.
"We're in the global economy whether we like it or not," Ryan said. "The question is who is going to write the rules on the global economy — [we can't] retreat, not play the games, not get involved and let other countries write the rules."
Trump's power play flopped. But the New York businessman didn't have much leverage anyway: Trump lost Ryan's Congressional district — and the state — to Sen. Ted Cruz in the April presidential primary.
Trump ended up endorsing Ryan on Friday at his campaign rally in Green Bay. Ryan wasn't in attendance. And neither were any of the leading Republicans in the state, including Gov. Scott Walker, Sen. Ron Johnson and Reince Priebus, a Wisconsin native and head of the Republican National Committee.
While Ryan is likely to win this round, the fissures on display in his race are unlikely to be healed any time soon.