Wisconsin Democrats rejoiced Wednesday at the news that House Speaker Paul Ryan will not seek re-election in November. But a Democratic victory in the 1st Congressional District is still far from probable.
"The district is a solidly Republican district. Typically the Republican’s margin there is 10 to 12 points higher than it is statewide, and sometimes it’s even bigger," said Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette University Law School poll.
The district's boundaries have changed to further benefit Republicans since Ryan was first 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.
State Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, was the last Democrat to represent the 1st District in Congress, from 1993 to 1995. Barca, in a January interview about the district, said moving Beloit into the 2nd District was probably the most significant redistricting change to benefit Ryan and Republicans.
Democrats are likely to draw most of their support from Janesville on the west end and Kenosha and Racine to the east.
"Democrats’ chances substantially rest in running up the margin in those urban areas," Franklin said.
Randy Bryce, an ironworker from Caledonia, located just north of Racine, and Cathy Myers, a schoolteacher from Janesville, will face each other in the Democratic primary in August.
Myers said on Twitter that Ryan is "running away from his responsibility for the harm his policies have caused to the lives of our neighbors in (the 1st District) & working families nationwide."
"We pushed him out. He’s afraid of us. Absolutely," Bryce said Wednesday in an interview. "That’s one thing I’ve never accused Paul Ryan of being, is stupid. I’m not going to start today."
Bryce, who exploded into the race with a viral video that attracted a massive national following, has raised $4.75 million since he launched his campaign. Myers trails Bryce in fundraising, having brought in about $750,000, but has picked up more national attention in recent weeks. Before he announced his retirement, Ryan's team had raised more than $54 million, a significant chunk of which was transferred to the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Team Ryan executive director Kevin Seifert said claims that Ryan was intimidated by Bryce and Myers are "laughable."
"In reality, Speaker Ryan was in perfect shape to be re-elected by a significant margin, as he has been for the past twenty years. Polling this year has consistently shown the speaker winning re-election by twenty points, and he is sitting on one of the biggest war chests in the country. People in this district know and like Paul Ryan," Seifert said in a statement.
Ryan said he is proud of his time in office, citing victories in overhauling the tax code and bolstering military readiness. After two decades in Congress, Ryan said he wants to spend more time with his family and be more than a "weekend dad."
Ryan has no plans to endorse a candidate in the Republican primary, but will work "tirelessly" to help elect a "qualified conservative" to the seat, Seifert said.
Two Republicans had already lined up to challenge Ryan: Paul Nehlen, a Delavan businessman, and Nick Polce, an Army veteran from Lake Geneva. Nehlen, a white nationalist, managed 16 percent of the vote in his 2016 primary challenge against Ryan.
Seifert said Nehlen's "bigoted rhetoric and his reprehensible statements should disqualify him from holding any public office and we are confident voters in Southern Wisconsin feel the same way."
Republican insiders speculated on Wednesday about who might enter the race with Ryan out. Names floated included University of Wisconsin Regent Bryan Steil; state Sen. David Craig, R-Town of Vernon; Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester; and state Reps. Samantha Kerkman, R-Salem, Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, and Tyler August, R-Lake Geneva.
None have announced any plans to run. Kerkman told reporters in the state Capitol that she is considering it while talking with others in the district and Steil said he's also considering a run in an email sent Wednesday afternoon.
"It is the year of the woman," she said when asked if she is thinking about a campaign.
Republicans argue the district is on strong footing to elect a conservative candidate.
Ryan lost just one election in his political career: the 2012 vice presidency. With the exception of Rob Zerban in 2012 and Ryan’s first opponent in 1998, Lydia Spotswood, none of his opponents ever cleared 40 percent against him.
But Democrats are hopeful they can capitalize on a "blue wave," and they're feeling motivated after victories for the left in a state Senate special election and state Supreme Court race this year.
"We got in and the mission was to repeal and replace Paul Ryan with a working person," Bryce said. "Initially people said that’s impossible, you’re never going to do it. But we had a commitment to make this a thing, and now people are looking and thinking it’s not so impossible anymore."
Still, Bryce said, Democrats will have to work "just as hard, if not harder" against the eventual Republican candidate.
Franklin said he expects Democrats will be just as enthused by the possibility of winning Ryan's former seat as they were by the possibility of unseating him.
According to a Marquette poll released last month, 64 percent of Democrats are "very enthusiastic" about voting, compared to 54 percent of Republicans. At the same time of year before the 2014 midterm elections, Republicans had a three-percent enthusiasm edge over Democrats.
"Since Donald Trump took office, 46 Republicans have resigned or made retirement plans, and Democrats have flipped another 39 state legislative seats from red to blue across the country," said Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez in a statement. "The American people are hungry for Democratic leadership, and the Democratic Party is organizing in every single ZIP code to provide it in 2018."
Ryan's retirement announcement shifted the district's rating from "solid Republican" to "lean Republican" in the Cook Political Report's forecasting model.
It's not unheard of for a district to shift by 5 to 10 points in a wave election, Franklin said. In fact, it happened in some cases in the Republican wave elections of 2010.
"If you saw a wave like 2010 but in a Democratic direction, then 2010 does provide us with an example where the swing is north of 10 points," Franklin said. "So it sort of demonstrates that swings that big have occurred and have occurred in recent years, but we’re still searching the tea leaves for how big the wave will be this year."