RACINE, Wis. — House Speaker Paul Ryan didn't act like a man facing a nationally watched primary, spending Monday making typical district visits to local businesses while his upstart opponent furiously campaigned across Wisconsin's First Congressional District hoping to make history.
Ryan talked taxes and manufacturing and of course, cheese, at A&E Hand Tools and at Ocenco Inc. The first company is a maker of automotive diagnostic tools while the second produces safety equipment for factory workers and lighting systems down the road in the small town Pleasant Prairie. He answered employees' questions about how the federal government can make their companies more competitive and whether he supports the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
He acted as if having a dozen television cameras and a score of reporters trailing him from shop to shop was standard procedure for routine district stops.
While his Republican opponent, Paul Nehlen, an executive with a Beaver Dam-based maker of water filtration systems, spent the weekend hammering Ryan for his trade stances, the worker who asked whether TPP would be ratified was polite and made no mention of Nehlen.
"I don't think we have the votes to pass it right now because of people like me," Ryan responded. Although he supports negotiating international trade agreements and believes the U.S. needs to lead the "writing" of global trade rules, he said the 12-nation deal contains too many problematic provisions for his taste.
"Right now that agreement isn't there, it isn't up to that standard yet, in my opinion," he said.
"We are in a global economy whether we like it or not," Ryan told the more than 100 assembled employees.
He then warned that if the U.S. does not engage, American manufacturers and farmers will lose out.
Canada has agreed to the European Union's demands that only cheese made in Parma, Italy, can be called "Parmesan" for example — a provision U.S. negotiators refuse to accede to in the still being hammered out Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.
Now Wisconsin dairy farmers, who produce too much cheese for domestic consumption, will lose market share in the Canadian market, Ryan said.
The EU will continue to sign similar deals with other countries, and China will secure treaties that benefit China at Americans' expense, if the U.S. doesn't agree to deals with other nations, Ryan said.
"Will America write the rules ... or let other countries, like China, write the rules that benefit China at our expense?" he asked.
Ryan said he was visiting the businesses to learn how they operate.
"I wanted to come here to learn about how you get your" orders and how Racine businesses function. "Because if I don't understand that, than I cannot be a very good congressman, can I?
Ryan is up by as many as 66 points, according to some polls.
One Ocenco employee asked Ryan why he doesn't support barring people on the government's "no-fly" list from buying guns, and then asked Ryan to autograph his copy of the Constitution.
While Ryan was being statesmanlike, telling amenable workers about how Republicans under his leadership will undo many federal regulations on many businesses, Nehlen was rallying his supporters outside of Ryan's Janesville campaign headquarters two hours away.
Nehlen hopes he can be the next "giant slayer" by taking down Ryan on Tuesday, like Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., did to then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in 2014 or former Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., did to then-House Speaker Tom Foley, D-Wash., in 1994.
But on Monday, no one even asked Ryan about Nehlen or otherwise indicated that the newcomer to both politics and Wisconsin (Nehlen only moved in the Badger State in 2014) posed any threat to the most powerful lawmaker in the U.S. House of Representatives.