Paul Ryan faces a hard-hat-wearing, Latino Democratic challenger

Liz Goodwin
Senior National Affairs Reporter
Randy Bryce speaking at a panel discussion at the Pasadena (Calif.) Convention Center on July 30, 2017. (Photo: Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images for Politicon)

Speaker Paul Ryan has his hands full in Washington trying to herd a fractured GOP majority in the House. But back home, a social media-savvy ironworker and Army veteran is making a serious bid to unseat him that’s picking up steam on the left.

Randy Bryce, who’s lived in southeastern Wisconsin his whole life, is running as a blue-collar populist who would be a voice for the state’s workers in Washington. In the viral ad that launched his candidacy in June, he challenged the speaker while wearing a hard hat: “Let’s trade places, Paul Ryan— you can come work the iron, and I’ll go to D.C.”

Since then, Bryce’s candidacy has attracted momentum among Democrats hungry for a win that would pack a serious symbolic punch. Swing Left, the grassroots group attempting to flip vulnerable Republican districts, added Ryan’s district to its list of targets, which was announced last week on the Pod Save America podcast popular among liberals. Bryce raised more than $1.5 million since June, most in small-dollar contributions, and also picked up the endorsement of Latino Victory Fund, a political action committee focused on electing Latinos.

Bryce’s candidacy is a long shot — Ryan has handily won his seat every election since the late 1990s in the Republican district that stretches from Lake Michigan to Ryan’s hometown of Janesville and all the way up to southern Milwaukee. In 2016, Ryan won the district by 35 points, and he has $10 million in the bank for his reelection campaign.

“Speaker Ryan works tirelessly to represent the best interests of the Wisconsinites that he serves,” said Kevin C. Seifert, executive director of Team Ryan. “Voters know him and believe in what he stands for. I am confident they will continue to support him in 2018.”

Bryce has also lost in bids for two statewide offices, once in a Democratic primary for state assembly in 2012 and two years later in a general election for state Senate, raising questions about his viability this time around.

But Bryce’s team counters that Ryan hasn’t had to face a real challenger since he was first elected in the late 1990s — and they point to polling that shows his support in the district may be slipping now that he’s the face of congressional Republicans writ large and not just a congressman. Bryce’s campaign manager, David Keith, said he believes Republicans are scared that Paul is more vulnerable than he looks.

“The NRCC, Paul Ryan’s own campaign and the state GOP relentlessly goes after @ironstache almost on a weekly basis,” Keith said, referencing Bryce’s Twitter handle.

A Global Strategy Group poll of likely voters in the district from August found that 50 percent see Ryan favorably, but only 46 percent would vote for him if Bryce runs against him. Thirty-seven percent would vote for Bryce. That Ryan has just a single-digit lead against a relatively unknown challenger is likely a cause for concern for his campaign. The polling also shows deep skepticism among many voters in the area for the House-passed Obamacare repeal bill that ultimately died in the Senate.

“The shine has completely gone from Paul Ryan in the district,” Bryce told Yahoo News.

Randy Bryce holds up a court order to open the doors of the state Capitol, Madison, Wis., March 1, 2011. (Photo: Andy Manis)

The president of Latino Victory, Cristobal Alex, also said he believes the district’s small but growing Latino population could be mobilized in support of Bryce, who supports immigration reform and whose father is of Mexican descent. “We think the race will be close enough where several thousand Latinos voting for their champion could flip the district,” Alex said.

From his Twitter handle @ironstache, Bryce has also repeatedly poked at Ryan for failing to have public town halls in his district for more than 600 days, saying he has lost touch with the people back home. Ryan later held a CNN-moderated town hall a few months ago that residents could apply to get into.

Bryce bills himself as the speaker’s polar opposite. Ryan has a technocratic, even scholarly vibe, occasionally presenting legislation to his members in Powerpoint form to make sure no wonky detail is missed. Bryce appeared in a mud-spattered denim shirt and hardhat in his first ad, and stressed in our interview that he knows what’s it’s like to struggle to pay the bills.

“It’s about knowing, understanding the daily trials of being a working person, raising a son and being a couple of paychecks away from being out on the street,” he said.

“You couldn’t draw a more perfect opposite character to Paul Ryan if you look at the two people and their histories,” Keith, Bryce’s campaign manager, said.

But Bryce is already showing some Washington savvy by dodging a question about whether he would support Nancy Pelosi as House Democrats’ leader if he manages to unseat Ryan. Republicans are likely to tie Bryce to the nationally unpopular minority leader, calling him a “Nancy Pelosi liberal” as a way to discredit him in the district.

“I always choose an election based on the best possible candidate,” he said, when asked if he’d back her. “I don’t know who would even be running against her.”

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