(Bloomberg View) — When there’s any question whether Paul Ryan, the U.S. House speaker and 2012 Republican vice-presidential candidate, would win his primary in a carefully sculpted Wisconsin district against a neophyte challenger with ties to the Tea Party and Sarah Palin, you know the political world is upside down.
The back and forth over whether Ryan would, or wouldn’t, endorse his party’s nominee, Donald Trump, dominated news coverage for weeks. Ryan, tugging his chin, hemming and hawing, finally did. But then the tables turned with Trump refusing to endorse Ryan while making very nice to his opponent, Paul Nehlen.
Trump did endorse the speaker, tepidly, a few days ago. Ryan won on Tuesday and will likely win in November, putting one Trump-induced crisis behind the party.
The Ryan re-election is one of a number of contests in which incumbents are threatened, either by an unexpectedly strong primary challenger or in the general election, or both, to the point where Republicans may lose their majority in the Senate, and possibly even the House.
Oddly enough, Ryan is the one candidate secure enough to have stood up to Trump and still win. He bucked Trump at first, but then buckled. Yes, there’s the cover story of honoring the will of the people who nominated Trump, but Ryan is also thinking ahead. He wants to run for president after four years of Hillary Clinton in the Oval Office and he will need a united party to win.
That explains the calculations taking place across the country. Ryan is like other politicians inspired by, well, politics, more often than principle: The degree to which you are willing to break with Trump depends on how soon, and where, you will be having an encounter with the Republican base he’s ignited.
Look at the list of endorsements and defections. The national-security establishment broke with Trump, but they aren’t running for anything. Others look safe in their seats without a seatbelt. Maine’s senior Republican Senator, Susan Collins, who this week said she wouldn’t be voting for Trump in morally serious language, is from a comparatively moderate state where she was soundly re-elected in 2014 and is a favorite to win the governorship should she decide to run for it in 2018.
Contrast that with Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s predicament in nearby New Hampshire, where Trump won a resounding victory in February. Ayotte is seeking a second term and is extremely vulnerable. She is running almost neck-and-neck against her opponent, Gov. Maggie Hassan, who has high favorables for turning around the economy and accepting Medicaid expansion dollars to fight an opioid epidemic.
Ayotte has broken with conservatives a few times on clean power and paid sick leave, but she’s had to defend votes to defund Planned Parenthood, reject new gun background checks and repeal the Affordable Care Act — Obamacare. She also is having to defend her refusal to vote on President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee.
Ayotte likes Trump about as much as finger-wagging Olympic star Lily King likes her doped-up Russian competitors, but she can’t say so. Instead, in a whisper, Ayotte says she will vote for Trump but not endorse him. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Whatever helps.
The drama in New Hampshire is nothing compared to the thriller in Arizona, where five-term Sen. John McCain, the party’s nominee in 2008, is being challenged in the state’s Aug. 30 primary by state senator, osteopath and mini-Trump Kelli Ward.
The party fears that McCain, who beat back a challenge in 2012 by declaring he would “complete the danged fence,” could be Cantored, meaning surprised by an unknown Tea Party-ish challenger, as happened to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia.