Photo by Gage Skidmore.
2008 was a bad year all around for Republicans and Paul Ryan was no different. In his hometown of Janesville, his usual 30 point margin was slashed all the way down to 18 points.
That was in the good old days before the GM plant in Janesville shut down around Christmas time in 2008, in a NAFTA-induced decision years in the making. For a plant that had at one time employed more than 7,000 workers in a small city with a population of 60,000, it was a savage blow that came during the already dire times of the Great Recession.
Seven years later, Janesville’s economy has recovered a bit, but it's still a shadow of its former self. The same can be said of Paul Ryan's political health. With the exception of the Republican wave year in 2010, he's been rejected by the voters of Janesville in every election since the GM plant closed. (He's been able to hold onto his seat largely thanks to Scott Walker-led gerrymandering.)
Janesville’s recent aversion to Paul Ryan came to a head when Ryan was running for Vice President and blamed President Obama for not keeping the Janesville GM plant open, even though Obama wasn't in office at the time the last Chevy Tahoe rolled off the line.
In the years since the plant closed, the impact of trade deals has gone from an obscure, wonky issue to the most potent populist crusade of 2016. Because these deals are equally unpopular with voters in both political parties, the leading insurgents on both sides of the aisle owe most of their success to bashing the establishment candidates over the head with this issue at every turn.
Hillary Clinton is refusing to debate Bernie Sanders because her campaign objects to ads Sanders has run saying he's "the only candidate" who opposed NAFTA and other free trade deals. The Clinton campaign says Sanders is breaking his pledge not to run negative ads.
And on the Republican side, the place that Donald Trump decided to kick off his Wisconsin campaign was none other than Janesville and guess what issue he brought up first?
"We want jobs. We want trade deals that are smart deals, not stupid deals," Trump declared. He went on to cite statistics about all the jobs Wisconsin has lost to trade deals, the annual "600 BiLLLLLion" trade deficit with China, and on and on.
Janesville is fertile ground for Trump, because it's got lot of the demographic that seems most receptive to his message: White, blue-collar men who have seen their economic fortunes decline.
Not only did Trump draw thousands and use the GM plant as a central prop, but, shortly after Paul Ryan criticized Trump’s uncivil style, in a mostly-Republican crowd in Ryan's hometown, he actually got the vast majority to loudly boo at the mere mention of this fall angel's name.
"Your new speaker, Paul Ryan... How do you like him?"
"Wow. I was told to be nice to Paul Ryan...."
"Really? Well, he's the speaker, he's very nice and he called the other day and he was very nice, but I'm very surprised by this statement."
Jud Lounsbury is a writer based in Madison, Wisconsin and a frequent contributor to The Progressive.