Democratic ironworker Randy Bryce has brought the national spotlight to southeastern Wisconsin, where he’s launching an underdog bid to take House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPaul Ryan researched narcissistic personality disorder after Trump win: book Paul Ryan says it's 'really clear' Biden won election: 'It was not rigged. It was not stolen' Democrats fret over Trump-district retirements ahead of midterms MORE’s (R-Wis.) seat.
Bryce’s campaign went viral in June with an emotional ad that blended his personal story and working-class roots with criticism of the Republican ObamaCare repeal plan. The ad’s spread online helped drive donations to Bryce’s campaign, despite the long odds facing any Democrat’s bid in the Republican district.
Ryan is one of the most powerful figures in the Republican Party and the architect of much of the GOP’s legislative agenda. He regularly cruises to reelection and ranks as one of the most prolific fundraisers in political history.
But while Democrats rarely put up a strong fight against Ryan, they are hoping that a new effort could succeed in ousting the speaker.
Explaining the success of his ad, which earned nearly 500,000 views on YouTube in two weeks, Bryce told The Hill that “people are just dying to be heard.”
“It’s not like I discovered electricity or invented the internet,” Bryce said.
Along with Bryce, two other Democrats have jumped into the primary field over the past six weeks, each attacking Ryan and Republicans’ healthcare plan.
First came David Yankovich, an Ohio political activist who moved to Ryan’s district to challenge him after being frustrated by the juxtaposition of watching his mother fall ill as Congress works to repeal ObamaCare.
Bryce, a local labor activist and veteran who cut his political teeth during the contentious battles over unionization in Wisconsin, entered the race in mid June. Like Yankovich, he points to his own mother’s medical battles in his announcement video as the inspiration behind his bid.
And later that month, Janesville School Board member and teacher Cathy Myers announced her bid with a video slamming Ryan over the healthcare plan while pitching her own service to the community.
The announcement landed Bryce a flood of national attention in the days after his video blew up. And the ad boosted his campaign coffers — Bryce raised about $430,000 in the 12 days between his announcement and the end of the second fundraising quarter.
Bryce has lost a handful of bids for local office in the past, but his campaign against Ryan boasts national experience. Bryce campaign manager Bill Hyers is a political veteran who steered Bill de Blasio through his 2013 bid for New York City mayor.
Bryce, who goes by the nickname “Iron Stache” on Twitter in reference to his facial hair, pointed to his work on local issues in the district as proof that he has the name recognition to take on Ryan.
“The people in the area know me, they know where I’ve stood on the issues, they know I’ve been a strong advocate,” he said.
Bryce compared his day job as an ironworker to Ryan’s handling of social welfare programs.
“One of the first things an ironworker apprentice learns is how to hold a ladder so somebody can get up it,” he said.
“Once you get to the top, you hold it still for the person that held it still for you while you were climbing. You don’t kick it away — there’s enough room up there for everyone.”
Unlike Bryce and Myers, Yankovich is new to the district, a potential electoral liability. After a medical discharge from the Navy one year into his service, Yankovich worked as a property manager and personal banker before winning a following on social media as a liberal pundit and activist.
He’s also leaning on his everyman experience as a selling point as he begins a listening tour.
“My experience is more about living a real life, knowing what it’s like to be on food stamps or to lose your job and have to drive home and just be sick to your stomach about how you are going to survive,” Yankovich told The Hill.
He pointed to Ryan’s previous comment referring to those on welfare as “takers” — comments Ryan has since apologized for — as proof that the Speaker has lost touch with his constituents.
“I’m more of a moderate than I am a far-left progressive. The reason I say that is that I would love to have all these things — free college for everybody, a $15 minimum wage — but it’s not possible right now in the current political climate,” he said.
Myers, the school board member, is the most recent entry to the race.
While she voted for Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocrats worry negative images are defining White House Heller won't say if Biden won election Whitmer trailing GOP challenger by 6 points in Michigan governor race: poll MORE in the presidential primary as the “pragmatic choice,” she said she learned from 2016 that Democrats have to “be bold” in their support of issues like single-payer healthcare.
“It’s important for Democrats and progressives to be who we are, let people see who we are and accept who we are. That’s a message that will resonate,” she said.
And though Bryce and Yankovich have received most of the buzz about the race, Myers told The Hill the primary is far from over.
“I’ve won elections. I know who I am and what I stand for. And I think I can articulate these solutions and thoughts best,” she said.
“That’s why I think I’m a candidate worthy of the same sort of attention these candidates have gotten so far.”
Democrats of all stripes are excited about the increased attention on the primary. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rep. Ben Ray Luján (N.M.) mentioned Bryce on a recent call with reporters discussing the upcoming midterms.
But even the perfect campaign will have to fight long odds to take down Ryan. Incumbents rarely lose, and defeating a sitting Speaker is even rarer.
Ryan sits on a $9.3 million war chest, a staggering number for a House race. And he could easily marshal more resources if he felt threatened by a Democratic challenger.
A party’s top leader in either chamber of Congress has only lost reelection twice in the past 50 years — House Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.) in 1994 and Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.) in 2004.
Ryan’s lowest margin of victory since his 1998 election came in 2012, when he still managed to win by 12 points after Democrat Rob Zerban spent $2.4 million running against him. Ryan has typically won other races by more than 30 percentage points.
A source familiar with Ryan’s thinking told The Hill that his team is taking the race seriously.
“What Democrats will soon realize is his title may have changed to Speaker Ryan, but he is still Paul — he has not forgotten where he is from,” the source told The Hill.
“The proof is in his actions. Paul maintains an active presence in southern Wisconsin, because that’s his home and it’s his job.”
The Cook Political Report ranks Ryan’s district as the 192nd most conservative district in the House, one where the GOP presidential candidate performs 5 percentage points better on average than the national results.
While 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney carried the district by 4 points, President Trump outperformed that margin last November with a 10-point win. On that same 2016 ticket, Ryan won by 35 points.
While Democrats hope that frustration with the Republican Party will hurt Ryan, Republicans want to tar whoever wins the district’s primary as too liberal to represent its interests.
All three Democratic candidates support liberal issues such as single-payer healthcare and a minimum wage hike.
Yankovich’s past writing could also hurt him in the district that went for Trump — one article he wrote for Raw Story is headlined “Yes, if you support Trump you are racist.” (Yankovich says the title was hyperbole meant to explain to Trump voters that by choosing him, they were embracing the negative aspects of his campaign, too.)
Both Bryce and Yankovich had previously interacted on social media with Louise Mensch, the former British member of parliament who has promoted outlandish anti-Trump conspiracy theories.
While they’ve since distanced themselves from Mensch, it’s the kind of tenuous connection that could play well come campaign season.
“Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District is not a liberal enclave. These candidates are way left of the district, and voters will learn that over time,” the source familiar with Ryan’s thinking said.
That’s an idea all three candidates disputed, arguing that voters don’t believe issues like workers’ rights, healthcare and the economy should be partisan.
For all the early energy, the election is still more than a year away. The Democrats have room to grow, but Republicans aren’t sounding the alarm.
“Clearly people in the Wisconsin 1st like him enough to split their ticket for him,” said Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia, noting that Ryan vastly outperformed Trump in the district in 2016.
“If there was backlash against the Republican brand, that could be a problem for him, as Obama narrowly carried the district in 2008. But you’ll need a lot of people who voted for Ryan in the past not to vote for him again, and incumbency is very important.”