Ryan’s exit scrambles Wisconsin House race

Ryan’s exit scrambles Wisconsin House race
© Getty Images

Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanFive takeaways from McCabe’s allegations against Trump The Hill's 12:30 Report: Sanders set to shake up 2020 race McCabe: No one in 'Gang of Eight' objected to FBI probe into Trump MORE’s (R-Wis.) impending retirement has set off a mad scramble in his Republican-leaning district, which suddenly looks more attainable for Democrats.

Ryan’s retirement breathes new life into the contested Democratic primary, where ironworker Randy Bryce is seen as the favorite thanks to impressive fundraising hauls and solid name recognition with the party’s progressive grass roots.


Ryan’s exit also immediately creates an opening for Republicans looking to succeed him, since the only candidate currently in the GOP primary is a vocal white nationalist.

Ryan, who has represented Wisconsin’s 1st District for nearly 20 years, has rarely faced a challenge. But now he had been headed toward a historically difficult reelection fight, facing both an uncharacteristically strong Democratic field and a political mood that’s expected to favor Democrats.

So while Republicans are still favored in the district, Ryan’s retirement will open up even more uncertainty about the future of the seat.  

Republicans now have seven weeks to field new challengers before the June 1 deadline. The primaries are on Aug. 14.

No candidates have entered the race since Ryan announced his retirement.

But Bryan Steil, Ryan’s former personal driver and a member of the University of Wisconsin board, has started wooing donors and talking to the state’s GOP delegation, according to CNBC. Steil would be a top candidate if he enters the race.

Other prospective GOP candidates include former Rep. Mark Neumann and state Rep. Samantha Kerkman.

Republicans need a pick that can beat Republican primary candidate Paul Nehlen, a white nationalist whom Ryan handily defeated in the 2016 GOP primary. Nehlen was kicked off Twitter for posting racist and anti-Semitic material and has lost the support of hard-line conservatives who once supported him in 2016.

Top Ryan political aide Kevin Seifert denounced Nehlen’s “bigoted rhetoric and reprehensible statements” in a statement last week that made clear that Ryan would fight against a Nehlen primary victory.

A Wisconsin Republican strategist eying the race told The Hill that Ryan is expected to offer an equal hand to the other primary candidates.

“Even with a busy travel schedule with the political season, he likes spending more time in Janesville than anywhere else. So it will help him kill two birds with one stone to get home and help the [Republican] candidate there,” the strategist said.

Democrats are increasingly bullish that they can flip the seat.

Most of the attention has centered on Bryce, whose occupation and mustache have earned him the nickname “Iron Stache.” Bryce burst onto the scene last year with a moving viral video
announcing his candidacy.

He’s raked in $4.75 million this cycle and has $2.5 million in the bank. His campaign told The Hill that he raised $70,000 in the 24 hours immediately following Ryan’s announcement. And while Bryce admitted fundraising might “drop off a little bit” with Ryan’s departure, he isn’t concerned about anyone catching up.

“We weren’t just running as a ‘I’m not Paul Ryan’ kind of campaign,” Bryce said.

“Over 50 percent of Congress is made up of millionaires, and the whole campaign is to get a working person in there to replace one of those multimillionaires.”

While Bryce still has to get through a primary against Democrat Cathy
Myers, he’s already shored up a number of endorsements from labor unions, national progressive groups and — most notably — progressive icon Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersKamala Harris: Trump administration ‘targeting’ California for political purposes Harry Reid says he won’t make 2020 endorsement until after Nevada caucus Gillibrand to appear on Fox News Monday night MORE (I-Vt.).

Bryce has also been embraced by establishment Democrats in Washington, who see his campaign account as a huge asset. Last month, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee added Bryce to its Red to Blue program highlighting targeted races. While it’s not an endorsement, the distinction means his campaign has met certain benchmarks and will receive financial support from the committee.

But Bryce also has his fair share of baggage, which both Myers and Republicans have used against him.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in November that Bryce was late on his child support payments, failing to pay off the debt until two months into his campaign. Bryce has framed his late child support payments as an example of the financial struggles that plague average Americans.

“It’s one of the reasons that I’m running, so things like that don’t happen,” Bryce said. “So dads don’t get behind, so moms that have to pay support have it easier as well.”

When asked if the issue could hurt him with female voters, Bryce noted his endorsement from the pro-abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America.

“It definitely is a possibility, but anybody who knows me or knows what I’m about knows that it’s not something that I was neglectful of doing,” he said.

“I got behind on bills, I’m not proud of it. ... It’s an issue that parents have to deal with.”

Myers has embraced her position as the leading female candidate in the race, telling The Hill that the 2017 Women’s March energized her to push for more women in public office.

“Women really need to have a place at the table, and it is a perspective that I bring to this,” she said.

“Even really great men, I think, have, in the past, not quite understood the dynamic of their thoughts and actions regarding women.”

The teacher and school board member has been gaining steam in recent weeks, doubling her entire 2017 fundraising haul in the first quarter of 2018, before Ryan’s announcement.

Ryan’s departure could give Myers an opening. She points to the fact that she’s won elections to school board in the state, while Bryce has lost his bids for the state Assembly and Senate, as proof of her electability.

“They viewed this as a Ryan-Bryce race for so long simply because they didn’t know there was someone else in the race,” Myers said.

“Bryce’s campaign got off to an incredibly great start. I announced just three days later, but the air was sucked out of the room right away. But we’ve been taking it back and building like crazy.”

Joe Zepecki, a longtime Democratic strategist in Wisconsin unaffiliated with either campaign, pointed to Myers’s “harder-edged message” and said he’s interested to see whether she can break through in what many see as the year of the Democratic woman.  

“This is going to be one of those test cases for what it means to be a progressive, unabashed badass woman in a year that’s shaping up to be a big year for women in progressive politics,” he said.

The Democratic field could grow, too — former Rep. Peter Barca (D), now a state representative in Wisconsin’s Assembly, hasn’t yet sworn off a bid.

Republicans are still favored in the race, but Ryan’s exit prompted election handicappers to shift the race in favor of the Democrats. Cook Political Report now rates the race as “lean Republican.”

President TrumpDonald John TrumpSchiff urges GOP colleagues to share private concerns about Trump publicly US-China trade talks draw criticism for lack of women in pictures Overnight Defense: Trump to leave 200 troops in Syria | Trump, Kim plan one-on-one meeting | Pentagon asks DHS to justify moving funds for border wall MORE won the district by 10 points in 2016, and GOP presidential nominee Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyGOP lawmaker comes out against Trump's emergency declaration Warren's national child care proposal has an ObamaCare problem Dem strategist says former GOP spokeswoman will be 'an asset' to CNN MORE won it by a few points in 2012. But then-candidate Barack ObamaBarack Hussein Obama4 ways Hillary looms over the 2020 race Obama goes viral after sporting black bomber jacket with '44' on sleeve at basketball game Obama attends UNC-Duke basketball game MORE narrowly carried the district in 2008.

Both Republicans and Democrats agree that, by losing Ryan, Democrats have lost a top foil that has helped Democratic fundraising in the race. Both parties are hoping that the governor’s race, where Republican Scott Walker is running for a third term, will drive turnout for down-ballot races.

Republicans are downplaying Democratic chances in the race, noting that a conservative state Supreme Court candidate won the district in a recent special election — although the liberal carried the race statewide. And they say Bryce, who supports abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is too liberal for the district.

Bryce’s campaign released an internal poll following Ryan’s announcement that shows him leading a generic Republican challenger by a razor-thin margin and performing strongly against hypothetical candidates.

But a late March poll circulated by a Republican campaign source shows Republicans with a 12-point generic ballot lead, with both Ryan and Trump receiving positive approval ratings.

For now, Republicans remain cautiously optimistic.

“Bryce and Myers are running to the far left, to the Bernie Sanders wing of the party,” the Wisconsin Republican strategist said. “Their policies will come more under the microscope.”