Randy Bryce has made national news again.
The 53-year-old ironworker from Caledonia is fielding questions from MSNBC’s Katy Tur about his latest fundraising haul. Hours earlier, the news that his campaign brought in $1.2 million in the fourth quarter of 2017 led the Politico Playbook rundown, which described the figure as “eye-popping.”
Eighty miles away from the Milwaukee TV station where Bryce is taping his interview, Cathy Myers is making phone calls from her home office in Janesville.
“This is Cathy Myers, and I just wanted to introduce myself today,” she says into a few answering machines. “I’m a high school English teacher and I’m on the Janesville School Board. I’m also running for Congress against Paul Ryan, and I’d love to talk with you about how we can beat him in 2018.”
Myers, 55, is dialing Michigan numbers today. She reaches a few people who say they’re donating to candidates in their home state, but they’re interested in supporting efforts to oust the Republican speaker of the House. Bryce has found the same to be true; Tur noted that more of that $1.2 million haul came from donors in New York and California than from Wisconsin wallets.
“Well, we’re getting the message out in the 1st Congressional District for sure,” Bryce told Tur. “We are reaching out to New York and California, that’s where a lot of money comes in from. But it’s to help us get rid of somebody like Speaker Ryan. He’s the number three Republican, and this country, it’s going the wrong place.”
Ryan’s national prominence has made Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District a magnet for money from throughout the country. No longer just a budget wonk from Janesville, Ryan represents everything voters love or hate about Republicans. As Democrats hope for a “blue wave” and a return to power in the House, they have set their sights on Ryan.
Bryce, with his trademark mustache, has become the face of the opposition in the national media, but Myers is waging her own energetic longshot campaign for the opportunity to take on a congressman in his 10th term, who won his closest election by 11 points.
Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District has seen some changes since Paul Ryan was elected with a 14-point margin in 1998. Over the years, redistricting has swapped the Democratic stronghold of Beloit for some of the most consistently Republican portions of Milwaukee and Waukesha counties. One thing that hasn’t changed: Ryan keeps on winning.
State Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, was the last Democrat to represent the 1st District in Congress, from 1993 to 1995. Barca says moving Beloit into the 2nd District was probably the most significant change in Ryan’s favor.
“The interesting thing about (the 1st District) is it’s somewhat of a microcosm of the U.S. in the sense that you’ve got rural farming communities, you’ve got big tourism areas like Lake Geneva, you’ve got manufacturing in Racine and Kenosha, you’ve got suburban areas,” Barca says. “It certainly leans Republican just because of the demographic changes.”
Janesville radio host Stan Milam has covered Ryan since he returned home to Janesville as a 27-year-old to run for Congress in 1998. Milam, 70, has followed Wisconsin politics for more than a half-century.
In Milam’s opinion, all politicians — no matter how popular — become vulnerable if they’re in office long enough.
“The time of vulnerability has arrived,” Milam says of Ryan. “Being speaker makes you vulnerable, there’s no way to get around it. His tax bill has made him vulnerable. Being within 10 feet of the president has made him vulnerable.”
The problem for Democrats, Milam says, is they gave up on the 1st District a long time ago. With few exceptions, he says, they haven’t run credible candidates. There’s no one in place to take advantage of Ryan’s vulnerability.
“And once again, the Democrats don’t seem to have a credible candidate,” Milam says. “Paul Ryan is the most vulnerable he’s ever been, and the Democrats are not prepared to take advantage of that.”
Even if they were, Milam says, they’d have a hard time beating the savvy, “ruthless” and well-funded Ryan.
Nationally, Ryan’s favorability and approval numbers sank to their lowest points ever last spring. The same happened in Wisconsin, but much less dramatically.
In June 2017, the last time the Marquette University Law School Poll surveyed Ryan’s favorability, 44 percent of voters viewed him favorably while 44 percent viewed him unfavorably.
Republicans are confident Milam’s wrong about Ryan.
“I fail to see the vulnerable side of Paul Ryan,” says Republican strategist Brandon Scholz.
What about tax reform? Scholz says Republicans like it. Health care? The House passed a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare. Donald Trump?
“I believe Paul Ryan, more than almost any other member of Congress, has successfully navigated that fine line of working with the president,” Scholz says. “He has come out when he’s not supportive of what the president has said or done, he has stood his ground and worked on issues with the president and the party, and at the same time he’s managed his own caucus, which is not always on the same page. You’re talking about a guy who plays multi-level chess the way he manages stuff.”
Dressed in jeans with a light blue shirt and a black, leather jacket, Bryce sits at a table in the back of his campaign headquarters in downtown Racine. The office reflects his demeanor — cool, quiet and a little rough around the edges. Exposed Cream City brick lines the room. Bryce is subdued and serious, with a shy smile blanketed by a mustache as jet-black as the hair on his head.
Bryce says Ryan has been Trump’s “chief enabler,” and refers to his recently passed tax overhaul as a “scam” designed to benefit the wealthy. He argues Ryan hasn’t done enough to push back when Trump does things like threaten to “totally destroy” North Korea in a speech to the United Nations or allegedly refers to certain African nations as “shithole” countries.
“He (Ryan) said it was ‘unfortunate and unhelpful,’” Bryce says of Trump’s “shithole” comment. “That’s something that happens when you’re at a restaurant, you know, you drop your fork. That’s unfortunate. And it’s unhelpful that they don’t have another one when you want to eat. That’s unfortunate and unhelpful, not blatant, racist comments attacking a country (Haiti) that helped us gain our independence … not to mention the whole continent of Africa.”
Bryce’s mustache is famous and, in spite of itself, a little bit hip. It’s the inspiration for his nickname and Twitter handle: Ironstache. Comedian Chelsea Handler posted a photo online in September of herself, actresses Aisha Tyler and Mary McCormack posing with Bryce. The three women wore fake mustaches.
“This guy has been an iron worker for 20 years and drinks whiskey. He is the real deal,” Handler wrote, encouraging her millions of followers to support him.
Bryce’s campaign donors include celebrities like Kathy Bates, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cynthia Nixon, Susan Sarandon and Charlize Theron. Sarah Silverman interviewed him on her Hulu show. Handler was scheduled to hold a fundraiser for Bryce in Madison later this month, hosted by U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, but the event was postponed, according to the conservative site MediaTrackers.
Republicans have gleefully criticized Bryce for his Hollywood connections, referring to him as “Red Carpet Randy.” Pocan, who represents the neighboring 2nd District, says that’s “a little bit shallow.”
“Look at you guys,” Bryce says of Republicans. “You elected Donald Trump, who’s a reality TV star. You elected him as your president. I think they’re just jealous because the only Hollywood people they have are the ‘Duck Dynasty’ guys.”
Bryce’s fame came the way it often does these days, with a viral video. Within days of its June release, he went from that guy Wisconsinites saw at protests or committee hearings at the state Capitol to that guy profiled by national publications and doing interviews on MSNBC. He invoked comparisons to Bruce Springsteen. His story — Army veteran, cancer survivor, single father, caring son — tugged at people’s heartstrings.
The video opens with Bryce and his mother, both emotional as they discuss how repealing and replacing Obamacare might affect her multiple sclerosis treatment. It shows Bryce walking with his son, working and laughing with local residents.
Bryce says in an interview that he’s discovered there is a “hunger … for one of our own to run for office.”
He has stumbled, too. He seemed stumped by a question about North Korea. CNN hosts appeared incredulous at his support for an “astonishing” tax hike to fund single-payer health care. But his supporters don’t care. He has racked up endorsements and raked in cash.
He got the stamp of approval from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, whom he lists as a political role model. He also got the backing of Kenosha businessman Rob Zerban, who gave Ryan his closest race in 2012, when Ryan was also running for vice president on Mitt Romney’s ticket.
Zerban, who also lost to Ryan in 2014, says he knows both Bryce and Myers well and likes them both “very much.” But Bryce’s campaign “caught fire,” Zerban says, and that puts him in a better position to defeat Ryan.
“Cathy is a really nice person and I’m guessing someday she’ll run for the Legislature or a county office,” Pocan says when asked why he chose to endorse Bryce in the primary. “The imagination got captured by Randy Bryce across the country and the district. I’m sort of surprised that she’s still in the race, to be perfectly honest, because she is a good person. It’s just, any other observer who’s not too close that you can’t see things understands that timing is everything in politics … I talk to scores of candidates every month and everyone’s trying to recreate that Randy Bryce video.”
There’s no disputing that Myers is the underdog. Most national stories mention her as an afterthought. She raised nearly $187,000 in the last quarter of 2017, compared to Bryce’s $1.2 million and Ryan’s $1.4 million. She has $107,000 in the bank, compared to Ryan’s $9.7 million. Bryce hasn’t said how much cash he has on hand.
Running for office was an inevitability for Myers. Her first foray into politics came as a child growing up in Iowa when she distributed literature for former President Jimmy Carter’s 1976 campaign. Her father, Dick, was a county supervisor, mayor and minority leader of the Iowa House of Representatives. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1978.
Myers’ home office is filled with family photos — school pictures of her two children, an assortment of shots of her parents and other family members with politicians like Carter and former President Barack Obama. On one wall is a “gratitude list” where she scrawls the names of people and events who help get her through the tough times of the campaign.
She has been elected twice to the Janesville School Board, where she currently serves as vice president. She says she thought she’d seek higher office once she retired from teaching, which she has done for 24 years.
“But then Donald Trump was elected and it just spurred something in me,” she says. “Then things started to happen that were incredibly important to me. For instance: Betsy DeVos being put in as education secretary. That is an affront, I think, to every public school teacher in this country.”
Next was the Republican health care plan Ryan championed. And then Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord. As she watched actions like the Women’s March in early 2017, Myers started to think about how women make up only 20 percent of Congress. She decided to speed up her timetable.
“I can’t wait until it’s convenient for me,” she says while a campaign staffer sets up a tripod and a lamp in the kitchen where Myers will film a Facebook Live video in a few minutes. She’s dressed in blue jeans and a dark blue shirt, her face framed by short waves of brown hair with streaks of gray.
Myers is generous with her laughs, and with her stories.
A question about a Harley-Davidson print on the wall leads to her showing off a collage her daughter made after the family road-tripped from Iowa to Alaska on motorcycles years ago. A question about a “Karaoke With Cathy” campaign fundraiser reveals that not only was she the 2005 Stateline Karaoke champion (she sang Carole King’s “I Feel the Earth Move”), she also spent a year working as a singing waitress at an Italian restaurant in Iowa City.
State Sen. Janis Ringhand, D-Evansville, describes Myers as a “hard worker” who has supported Democratic candidates with her “nose to the grindstone.”
Like Bryce, Myers speaks passionately about her union. That means something in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker effectively eliminated most public employees’ ability to collectively bargain, then signed right-to-work legislation into law a few years later.
Myers has served as president and vice president of her union and led a strike — she teaches just across the border in Rockton, Illinois, where teachers can do that — in 2003. Unions “frame and support the middle class,” she says.
Bryce won’t commit to a debate with Myers.
“We’re waiting to see. It’s still pretty early,” Bryce says. He notes that David Yankovich, who moved from Ohio to Kenosha to challenge Ryan, dropped out to back Bryce in July.
Bryce says he tries to “look at anybody who’s running to take out Paul Ryan as an ally.” It’s important to keep things positive among Democrats, he says.
Both candidates are expected to speak at a "Grassroots North Shore" meeting at the end of the month, although they will not debate.
Myers says she loves primaries — they strengthen candidates and parties — but she thinks Bryce has written her off because she hasn’t raised as much money as he has. Ringhand says Bryce got a “good kickstart,” but says she’s “not hearing a lot about what he knows as far as issues.”
Republicans offer a similar assessment of Bryce, questioning his depth on policy.
“Voters look for more than just somebody’s mustache or hard hat. If that were the case then Rollie Fingers would be in Congress,” says Scholz, the GOP strategist, referring to the handlebar-mustachioed early 1980s Milwaukee Brewers pitcher.
Bryce spokeswoman Lauren Hitt says it's "pretty hypocritical for Republicans to criticize Randy, a lifelong resident of the district, for not knowing enough to represent it, when Paul Ryan won't even meet with residents without an appointment. It's hard to know enough to represent a district if you're not talking to its residents."
Myers has highlighted Bryce statements she believes are “misogynistic,” including a tweet he apologized for suggesting that Ivanka Trump might have an affair with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau if her husband, Jared Kushner, were arrested. An earlier Bryce tweet called Ivanka Trump a “succubus” — a female demon who has sex with men in their sleep.
Myers also criticized a statement a Bryce aide made to VICE comparing her to one of Ryan’s Republican primary opponents, Paul Nehlen, who has openly embraced anti-Semitic and white supremacist views. Bryce's campaign notes the comparison was between the candidates' resources on hand, not their views.
Neither Bryce nor Myers will criticize the other personally. “I really don’t know him,” she says. When asked about her perception of Bryce’s attitudes toward women, she doesn’t assign him blame, but says there are some important differences between male and female candidates.
“There might be just some things he doesn’t get,” she says. “And that’s a problem, because women are tired of people that just don’t get it. And I think that’s why women are coming out of the woodwork and running for office and realizing that you can’t wait around for other people to get it, why it matters.”
Even “really great guys sometimes don’t get it,” she says.
Bryce disagrees with her assessment, arguing one of the things he appreciates about being in a union is support for gender equality. He notes an endorsement from NARAL Pro-Choice America.
“I’ve never been afraid to admit if I do something wrong and I try to approach everything with open ears, too,” he says. “I don’t know everything about every subject, but I do my best, and there’s nothing — I’ve never gone after anybody because of their sex, or put them down because of it.”
His newly hired communications director, Hitt, jumps in. She just left Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney’s office to work on this race and says she wouldn’t have made the move if she had “even the smallest reservations about (Bryce’s) support for women.”
No matter who you ask in the 1st District, you’ll hear this: Paul Ryan is a gifted campaigner and he sure seems like a nice guy. He’s a talented retail politician who’s not averse to asking for money, which funds not just his campaigns but those of Republicans throughout the country.
Democrats point out that while he campaigns as a moderate, he votes as a conservative. They argue that as speaker, he can’t pull that off anymore. Republicans say he’s a hometown guy, as advertised.
“He’s almost like an institution in Wisconsin now. Everybody in Janesville feels like they know him,” says Andrew Iverson, chairman of the Rock County Republican Party. “Just a few weeks ago after church, I went to Dunkin’ Donuts with my sister like I do most Sundays. I saw Speaker Ryan there, of course. People genuinely like Speaker Ryan. They trust him. They know he’s fighting for them. When he was first elected, he was running on tax reform — we were able to accomplish that recently.”
Ryan comes home to Janesville nearly every weekend, his campaign frequently points out. He doesn’t own or rent a place in Washington, opting to sleep on a cot in his office. He grows a beard during hunting season — and he does, indeed, hunt. He cheers for the Packers and the Badgers, despite graduating from Miami University in Ohio. His supporters call him “Paul.” He comes to their county party picnics.
Meanwhile, Democrats have taken to counting how long it’s been since Ryan last held a public town hall. A PolitiFact analysis last summer found that Ryan’s last public town hall was in October 2015, save for one aired by CNN in August 2017 — which was open to the public. Pocan, who grew up in Kenosha, has started holding his own town halls in the district.
Pocan is confident there will come a time when Ryan finds he’s in trouble and needs to play up his Wisconsin roots.
“I don’t even look that close at the primary because I believe it’s sort of done,” Pocan says. “I believe, in the general, at what point does Paul realize that he’s in trouble and come back and start going pheasant hunting and wearing flannel and trying to find out what a Spotted Cow actually is? Spoiler alert: it’s a beer, Paul.”
A Wisconsin GOP strategist, who did not want to be named, laughs off Pocan’s jabs, accusing him of trying to make the race seem more competitive than it is.
“Mark Pocan might be the most out-of-touch member of Congress and his liberal worldview is removed from the values and beliefs of 1st District voters,” the strategist says. “Paul has been re-elected with widespread support every time he’s been on the ballot and, most importantly, Paul doesn’t have to pretend he’s in touch with his district. He actually is and everyone knows it.”
Ryan told reporters in Madison last summer he has turned to “new and creative” methods to connect with constituents, including telephone town halls, office hours and “employee town halls” at businesses within the district.
He also took questions from audience members at a Milwaukee event earlier this month, after an interview with WisPolitics president Jeff Mayers. Among those questions was whether there’s any truth to the rumors, reported by Politico, that his departure from Congress is imminent.
He gave the same answer he’s offered since the rumors emerged: he’s not going anywhere anytime soon and he’ll discuss his plans for re-election with his wife this spring like he does every two years.
“I think people are making more out of nothing here. There was this speculation, sort of gossip piece in D.C. that suggested once my big signature issue of tax reform is done, why would I stick around?” Ryan said. “That thought never even entered my mind, let alone did I even discuss it with anybody.”
Neither Bryce nor Myers are distracted by the rumors.
“I think he looks miserable when I see him, and I like to think I have something to do with that,” Bryce says when asked about the speculation over Ryan’s future. “He’s got to know that regardless of what happens in a race between mine and his, he’s not going to be speaker of the House anymore. Democrats are going to take control. What’s left in it for him?”
Ryan has two Republican challengers — Nehlen, a Delavan businessman, and Nick Polce, an Army veteran from Lake Geneva. Nehlen, who had the backing of the conservative news site Breitbart, managed 16 percent of the vote in his 2016 primary challenge against Ryan at a time when Ryan was under fire from some on the right who didn’t think he was doing enough to support Trump’s presidential campaign.
Erin Decker, chairwoman of the Kenosha County Republican Party, says board members in the county party don’t like Nehlen and his white supremacy rhetoric.
“The party faithful still stand by (Ryan), especially after this tax plan got passed,” Decker says. “In a couple of weeks when our paychecks are bigger, people are really going to see what a great job Paul’s doing for our district and our country.”
Republicans in Kenosha County are worried about the national debt, immigration reform and entitlement reform, Decker says. They’re pleased with the way Ryan has worked with Trump. Iverson of the Rock County GOP says local Republicans are excited about Ryan’s tax overhaul and supportive of his proposed changes to entitlement programs.
Steve Doelder, treasurer of the Walworth County Democratic Party, says income inequality and health care access are the top issues among Democrats in the area. Ringhand, the state senator backing Myers, says farmers in the area are concerned about changes to the North American Free Trade Agreement and to immigration policies that could affect Latino employees. Seniors in the area are concerned about changes to Social Security, she says.
Asked what accomplishments Ryan is proudest of, an aide lists tax reform immediately. The aide also lists changes to the Veterans Administration, reversing Obama-era regulations, fighting to increase military funding and taking an “active role” in recruiting Taiwanese electronics manufacturer Foxconn to Wisconsin.
“This notion from Democrats that Paul has somehow ‘lost touch’ with the district or that he isn’t in Southeast Wisconsin is garbage,” says Ryan campaign spokesman Jeremy Adler. “People across the district know him, know what he stands for, and understand that his number one priority in Congress is making life better for his constituents.”
Ryan declined an interview for this story.
Democrats in the district praise Bryce’s ability to “nationalize” the race. He’s done that with the help of strategists like Bill Hyers, who partnered with producer Matt McLaughlin to create the video that brought in $100,000 of campaign contributions within 24 hours of its release in June.
“That’s a real narrative that people don’t need a policy expert to explain — they’ve lived it,” says Racine Mayor Cory Mason, who recently stepped down from the state Legislature and has not endorsed a candidate in the race. “Randy has managed to nationalize it not just with videos, but telling real stories.”
Several longtime area Democrats say they like Myers’ platform, like her personally and like the idea of electing more women — but they question the tactics of her campaign staff. One longtime Democrat says Myers has “managed to surround herself with some pretty divisive characters” who “have their own baggage.”
Myers campaign manager Dennis Hughes is active on Twitter, where he frequently challenges Bryce supporters. Hughes has also drawn the ire of some Democrats for his involvement in an ugly primary campaign against state Rep. Christine Sinicki, D-Milwaukee. Urging readers to support Sinicki in a 2016 post on his “Iron Stache” website, Bryce referred to Hughes as a “clown.”
Much of Hughes’ frustration stems from a perception that Myers is being overlooked because she’s a woman. He hints that Bryce’s story is too good to be true.
Bryce has come under fire for owing his ex-wife $1,257 in child support, which he paid off in August, two months after launching his campaign. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel later reported that Bryce paid off a $1,766 loan — $4,245 with interest — to an ex-girlfriend two months after settling his child support obligations.
Bryce and his supporters argue his financial troubles show that he’s just like anyone else struggling to get by. But Myers supporters believe women won’t respond well to the child support delinquency. Myers, who raised her children as a single mother, notes that she picked up a second job cleaning up horse manure when her ex-husband fell behind on child support.
Myers and her supporters also question Bryce’s electoral record. He lost a Democratic primary for state Assembly in 2012 by nearly 40 points. The following year he lost a 10-way primary for the Racine County Board of Education. He lost a general election for state Senate in 2014 by 23 points.
Bryce was also active in the recall movement that targeted Walker and other Republicans following the passage of Act 10. That movement brought massive protests and piles of money into Wisconsin, but ultimately left Republicans with a stronger grip on state politics than before.
When asked what’s different now, Bryce says,“There’s still those people who were involved from Act 10, but people are now seeing what happened in Wisconsin taken to the national level, and knowing what could happen. There’s other grassroots groups coming up, like Indivisible and Forward Racine. A lot more people are getting energized. And we’ve seen what’s happened since Scott Walker got elected. Just knowing how long it’s going to take to fix Wisconsin, but taking back Washington D.C. before it turns into, before the rest of the country turns into Wisconsin.”
Home to both Ryan and Myers, Janesville falls on the western edge of the district, while Bryce’s home of Caledonia sits on its eastern edge.
Barca and Mason were among four Democratic state lawmakers who voted to support the state’s $3 billion Foxconn incentive package. In a speech before his vote, Mason talked about bringing back an opportunity for people to “do something with their own two hands and provide for their family with good, middle-class jobs.”
Mason says Trump was able to appeal to the sentiment that people are working hard but falling behind in his campaign.
“That’s where people feel politics at a visceral level — these factories that have shuttered and moved to China or Mexico,” he says. “You can have the smartest, centrist Democrats talk about how it’s automation … but I can drive you around the city and show you all the factories that have shuttered, and none shut down because they were automated. They all shut down to move somewhere else.”
The 1st District, which favored Trump by about 10 points, includes two counties that elected Obama in 2008 and 2012 before supporting Trump in 2016. Obama won Kenosha County with 12 percent of the vote in 2012; Trump took it with 0.3 percent in 2016. Racine County supported Obama with a 3.5 percent margin in 2012, then supported Trump by 4.3 percent.
Wisconsin Republicans are sounding the alarm that their legislative majorities could be in jeopardy, including former Gov. Tommy Thompson who, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, said he does not foresee “a very good Republican year.”
But Ryan has lost just one election in his political career: the 2012 vice presidency. With the exception of Zerban in 2012 and Ryan’s first opponent in 1998, Lydia Spotswood, none of his opponents have cleared 40 percent against him. If Democrats plan to knock him out in a wave, they’re going to need a tall one.
This story has been corrected to attribute a statement to a Bryce aide, not the candidate, and to clarify the statement.
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