Wednesday was a very good day for Democrats, as House Speaker Paul Ryan announced he will retire at the end of his term.
Ryan’s departure opens up a path for Democrats in Wisconsin’s First Congressional District, which Ryan has had locked down since he first won office in 1998. Now that the speaker is leaving, the district suddenly looks much more like a pickup opportunity for Democrats.
The campaign arm of House Democrats has already coalesced around candidate Randy Bryce, a populist ironworker and union organizer who goes by the nickname “IronStache” as their best shot to knock Ryan off his throne.
Bryce had already been fundraising up a storm, so far raising $4.75 million, with 75 percent of those donations coming in increments of $200 or less, according to his campaign. He was recently added to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “red to blue” list of candidates, to flip competitive districts currently held by incumbent Republicans.
“Paul Ryan decided to quit today rather than face Randy Bryce and the voters,” said Bryce campaign communications director Lauren Hitt in a statement. “With nearly $5 million raised to date, a strong field program aided by organized labor, a broad coalition of support locally and nationally, Randy Bryce is incredibly well positioned to be the next Representative for the First District. Electorates far more conservative than Wisconsin’s First have already elected Democrats in special elections in Wisconsin and across the country.”
The district is rated R+5 by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, and Democrats are averaging an 8-point advantage in the generic ballot. Given a surprise Democratic victory in the recent Pennsylvania congressional special election in a deeply red district that was rated R+11, Democrats are feeling very good about their chances in 2018.
Ryan’s announcement amplifies that, especially given an immediate ratings change for his WI-1 district following his announcement. Sabato’s Crystal Ball moved the district from likely Republican to a toss-up.
CRYSTAL BALL HOUSE RATINGS CHANGE: WI-1 moves from Likely Republican to Toss-up w/ Paul Ryan's reported retirement. Full explanation to follow.— Kyle Kondik (@kkondik) April 11, 2018
To say Democrats were gleeful would be an understatement.
“Stay tuned for more retirements as Republicans increasingly realize that their midterm prospects are doomed,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee national spokesperson Tyler Law said in a statement.
Who is Randy Bryce, a.k.a. IronStache?
Bryce is a union ironworker and Army veteran. He was a Bernie Sanders supporter in 2016, serving as a Sanders delegate from Wisconsin during the Democratic National Convention. He’s proud of his working-class roots — unlike a lot of other candidates, it’s typical to see Bryce standing on a construction site with a hard hat on in his campaign ads, rather than wearing a suit.
“People like seeing one of their own represent them,” Bryce told my former Vox colleague Jeff Stein in an interview last year. “I work on a construction site for a living. That’s what people have seen in our campaign.”
He’s indicated he’s a different kind of Democrat, and has also been cautious when talking about whether he would support House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi if she were to run for speaker if Democrats can retake the majority in 2018.
“It’s impossible to appreciate enough the historic fact that she’s the first woman in that position, that she got a lot of folks together and got stuff done. But people are looking at the Democratic Party and asking, ‘Where do we go?’ I’m in favor of seeing new faces and ideas that resonate,” he told Stein.
From the beginning, Bryce has drawn a clear contrast between himself and Ryan. His first campaign announcement video last summer homed in on Ryan’s Obamacare repeal effort, and it went viral. Bryce will run against Democrat Cathy Myers in an August primary.
When Vox interviewed Bryce last summer, it was in the middle of Republicans’ unsuccessful attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Bryce hit Ryan for not being visible in the district, and laid out how he planned to attack Ryan’s conservative record and focus on issues important to working people.
“He doesn’t do anything for us. He doesn’t listen to us,” Bryce said. “The whole thing with health care is that people are just fed up. He says it’s a health care bill, but it’s not — it’s a tax break.”
Bryce is a supporter of Medicare-for-all and has said he would sign on to the bill that is currently proposed in the House. He’s running on a platform that focuses mostly on jobs and the economy and has made infrastructure a huge focus of his campaign.
“If you look at the rich, the CEOs and the ones that own these corporations, they use our infrastructure,” Bryce told Stein. “Working people — it’s outrageous for us to pay for the majority of things when we’re the ones who are going to build things. ... Without our labor, there is no capital.”
Democrats running all over the country will be focused on a similar message in 2018 — that Ryan’s agenda of repealing Obamacare and passing tax cuts are bad for working people. But now, Ryan won’t be on the campaign trail in Wisconsin to push back on Bryce’s talking points.