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“IronStache” Randy Bryce on running in Wisconsin after Paul Ryan took himself out of the game

Bryce ran on “repealing and replacing” Ryan. Ryan just repealed himself.

Bernie Sanders Campaigns With Congressional Candidate Randy Bryce In Wisconsin Scott Olson/Getty Images

Randy Bryce, the Democratic frontrunner for Wisconsin’s First Congressional District, got into the race in the middle of the failed Republican effort to repeal and replace Obamacare last summer.

Now, as Bryce likes to say, he’s successfully repealed one of the men who led that effort: House Speaker Paul Ryan, who announced Wednesday that he will retire from Congress at the end of his term. But he still wants to replace Ryan.

“Even though we just have the repeal part down, we’re still only halfway with our mission,” Bryce told me on Wednesday, after the news broke.

Bryce, better known by the nickname “IronStache,” checks every box for Democrats trying to reclaim white working-class voters who went to Trump in 2016. He hails from Caledonia, Wisconsin, a small town in an industrial area that voted for Trump in 2016. He’s an ironworker and longtime union organizer. He’s a cancer survivor, and both of his parents are dealing with costly medical issues (his first campaign ad featured his mother, who has multiple sclerosis, talking about the exorbitant cost of her medications in the middle of the GOP’s Obamacare repeal effort).

The progressive groups Our Revolution and the Working Families Party love Bryce’s working-class credentials and message. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee loves that he’s raising money at a blistering clip — about $4.75 million since he entered the race, per his campaign.

Ryan’s exit also puts Bryce in an interesting position. Certainly, it boosts his chances; Ryan had held down Wisconsin’s First District for the past 20 years and would have been a formidable opponent. But his departure also creates a vacuum.

To this point, Bryce’s campaign has been part of a national movement focused on ousting Ryan and sending a message to Democrats on how to run populist candidates. Now he has to run a real campaign.

Bryce didn’t seem worried when I spoke to him Wednesday.

“We’ve been running as, ‘We need more working people in Washington, DC, making decisions on behalf of us,’” he told me on Wednesday. “That’s still the same message; it hasn’t been a ‘vote for me because I’m not Paul Ryan.’”

I talked to Bryce about his meteoric rise since he got into the race last year, and about the shift from being an ironworker on construction sites to mounting a national campaign to take down the speaker of the House — including fundraising the millions needed to mount a challenge against Ryan (and now whichever Republican replaces him in the race).

“The amount of money needed to run or to take somebody out like Paul Ryan ... it’s obscene,” Bryce said. “That’s one of the things I’m committed to doing is being an advocate for campaign finance reform, because it’s absolutely ridiculous the amount of time that’s spent on trying to raise the money in order to get the message out.”

Before the November midterms, Bryce has an August primary, where he will face off against Cathy Myers, a teacher and school board member from Janesville, Ryan’s hometown. I also interviewed Myers, which you can read here.

“Last year, I was working on a high-rise building, swapping out glass 100 feet in the air, freezing my butt off,” Bryce said. “Today, we had something to do with Paul Ryan leaving. So we’ve come a long way in less than a year.”

Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Ella Nilsen

It’s been a news big day for your campaign with the announcement about Ryan’s retirement. When did you hear the news? What were your thoughts?

Randy Bryce

I first heard this morning, I was getting ready to hop into the shower and turned the TV on just before I went into the bathroom and saw the caption, “Paul Ryan has told advisers that he’s not going to run again.” I was obviously extremely happy, but I’d heard this before; it’s been a rumor for several months that he wasn’t going to run. I was of the mindset where I’m not going to believe it until I actually see him with my own eyes say he’s not running again.

Ella Nilsen

With Ryan gone, this is huge for the race. How does this change your position in it?

Randy Bryce

When we first got in, we said it was in order to repeal and replace Paul Ryan with a working person. And just remembering the people that didn’t know what I was about, that said, “This is an uphill struggle, why are you even trying this?” The kind of feeling I had today is the reason why. Even though we just have the repeal part down; we’re still only halfway with our mission. We still need to get to November; there’s no time to ease up on the gas pedal; we have to keep it down and work just as hard as ever to make sure we’re successful with the replacing part.

Ella Nilsen

In the same vein, your first campaign ad went viral, directly hitting Ryan on the attempt to repeal Obamacare. You’ve been very vocal throughout your campaign, specifically attacking Ryan on various issues. Now he’s out of the race — do you still have the same point person to hit and draw a contrast between now?

Randy Bryce

Absolutely, and the thing is, we’ve been running as, “We need more working people in Washington, DC, making decisions on behalf of us.” That’s still the same message; it hasn’t been a “vote for me because I’m not Paul Ryan.” We’ve taken some pretty strong stances on some issues that we didn’t have to, but it was things we felt strongly about; we felt it was fair to the voters to let them know where we stood on some issues. And even though some issues might not be considered a safe or mainstream type of thing, it’s the right thing to do as far as being a compassionate leader.

Ella Nilsen

What do you think Ryan announcing he’s going to retire says about the Republican Party in Wisconsin and Ryan’s own standing in Wisconsin?

Randy Bryce

I think he’s one of the last people to jump off the sinking ship before it completely goes under. He waited until the last minute to try to make the Republicans feel like they had something to hold on to. So the fact that he is quitting now, it says that he sees what’s coming. And I can’t say that I blame him. But they’ve been in power in the state of Wisconsin for years, as far as that goes. We just had some really great results last Tuesday, for our [state Supreme Court] election, and the pendulum is coming to the other side. Now we need to elect people that care about everybody, not just the wealthiest among us.

Ella Nilsen

So you announced a while ago. From then until now, I wanted you to walk me how you feel things have progressed, because you have a pretty large national profile now and you’ve been fundraising a lot of money. The DCCC recently added you to their “red to blue” list. How do you feel it’s been going?

Randy Bryce

I was optimistic when we started. Some of the messages I got today from other ironworkers was “dragon slayer,” and things like that. But having a good team in place and just being committed to what we had to do, to our goals, to our ideas, to our values. Making that known throughout just the First District, but obviously the rest of the country heard about it too when the video went viral. But just being able to take steps at a time, and having the end game to what the destination was going to look like. And just being able to build — you mentioned DCCC, but we had Bernie Sanders not too long ago as well, so it’s uniting the Democratic Party to take out the third most powerful Republican in the country.

Last year, I was working on a high-rise building, swapping out glass 100 feet in the air, freezing my butt off. Today, we had something to do with Paul Ryan leaving. So we’ve come a long way in less than a year. It’s not that I’ve invented anything or created anything, but it’s just a basic story that people see with parts of their lives — things that I’ve had to face.

Ella Nilsen

Your campaign highlighted that you’ve raised nearly $5 million since you started. Why do you think this campaign is drawing so much money?

Randy Bryce

Well, the part that amazes me isn’t the amount of money that we’ve raised, I guess the finance people are loving it. But personally, I love the fact that that many people have donated, and the fact that 74 percent of that incredible amount of money has come in $200 increments or less. Just everyday people being able to donate and reading the letters. People are like, “I don’t make a lot of money, but I’ll donate an hour’s worth of pay to your campaign.” Just getting that support from working people, it’s meant everything, it really has.

Ella Nilsen

I was reading through some local news and saw that you guys had canceled a fundraiser in Madison, Wisconsin, with Chelsea Handler. What happened with that?

Randy Bryce

That was never a scheduled event that was planned.

Ella Nilsen

It was never scheduled?

Randy Bryce

No, there was never an officially scheduled event for her for that to take place.

Ella Nilsen

Has she been coming out to do campaign appearances?

Randy Bryce

Yeah, we did have an event in Milwaukee; somebody won a contest, so they came to the area, got to meet her and myself. And she did attend a fundraiser in Wisconsin as well. She’s been very supportive; she has been doing some traveling around, helping other candidates as well. Mostly female candidates — I think myself and Beto O’Rourke are two of the male candidates that she’s chosen to help.

Ella Nilsen

In 2016, you were a delegate for Bernie Sanders, who has a huge focus on getting money out of politics. I know a lot of your donations have been small donations, but you’ve raised almost $5 million. As somebody that is now running this big campaign, what do you think about the amount of money that’s needed to run for Congress these days?

Randy Bryce

It’s ridiculous. The amount of money needed to run or to take somebody out like Paul Ryan ... it’s obscene. That’s one of the things I’m committed to doing is being an advocate for campaign finance reform, because it’s absolutely ridiculous the amount of time that’s spent on trying to raise the money in order to get the message out. There are so many better ways to do it, and it’s something we need to do. If we are really committed to restoring democracy to the United States, we need to overturn Citizens United and have a complete finance overhaul.

Ella Nilsen

How would you say you try to balance your time fundraising versus other aspects of campaigning?

Randy Bryce

It’s been to the point where I demand that for a certain amount of time raising money, or if we go someplace in order to do that, that we tie in local issues, [and] labor, with the policy rollouts we’ve been having. And just make it accessible for everybody too.

The amount of time and money, it’s important to make sure it’s done for the right reasons. It’s to represent people, so you need to be accessible. That’s what we’ve been able to do, and I’m pretty sure that might have had something to do with Paul Ryan quitting as well. It’s been over 900 days since he’s had an event in the district.

Ella Nilsen

When you were running against Ryan — obviously, he’s a prominent national figure; you’re speaking about national issues. How do you balance this national focus of the campaign and trying to fundraise the amount of money that would be needed to take down somebody like Paul Ryan with local concerns and local issues in your district?

Randy Bryce

That’s been the whole difference of this campaign so far. It’s been about 900 days since Paul Ryan has had a public event in the area, but he spent Easter traveling around to Dallas raising money. And ... we’ve done what’s needed to get done to be successful fundraising, but we’ve been able to pay attention to the area.

Within the last couple of weeks, we’ve had at least three events and invited some of the students, too, as part of the March for Our Lives event, to make sure that people who are standing up demanding to be heard, to make sure that they’re heard, to make sure we listen to them. That’s what our representative needs to do. We’ve been very active within the area and making sure people know that somebody cares about them, somebody wants to represent them. You can’t tell me you that you can represent somebody you’re afraid to see. When your policies are so horrible that you’re afraid to face the people in your district, that says everything that you need to know, which is why it was the right move for Paul Ryan to quit.

Ella Nilsen

The next thing coming up is your primary in August. You have one Democratic opponent so far, Cathy Myers. How do you feel about how the primary is going to go? Do you feel confident you’re going to emerge from that and make it to the fall?

Randy Bryce

Yeah, the coalition and amount of support we’ve been able to build is nothing short of incredible. I mean, just a united Democratic Party effort combined with labor and progressive groups that have all gotten behind us to help us repeal and replace Paul Ryan. So we’re going to continue our positive message. I don’t have anything negative to say about any Democrat that wants to get rid of Paul Ryan. As an ironworker, I’m in construction, not demolition. And we’re building a movement.

Ella Nilsen

You had talked to my old colleague Jeff Stein last year and he asked you this question, but I wanted to ask you again. There’s been a lot of talk after the Pennsylvania special election about Conor Lamb saying he wouldn’t support Nancy Pelosi as speaker if Democrats take back the House. What are your thoughts on Pelosi and if you’d support her?

Randy Bryce

To be honest with you, that’s not something voters have been asking me. I’m really concentrated on winning this election. If she runs, it’s like every election: who all’s in the race, who all should I consider. I weigh the options, and I vote based on who I feel would best be able to represent me or who would get the job done.

Ella Nilsen

What are some of the most pressing concerns you’ve heard from voters on the campaign trail?

Randy Bryce

They want to save their Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare, and pensions. The older people in the district are very concerned about having a roof over their heads, having access to medication, and not being at a place where ... I mean, some of the stories I’m hearing are unbelievable, where somebody goes to the pharmacist and they’re having a conversation with the pharmacist: “I can’t afford all my medications, which ones would you suggest I get, what do I absolutely need?” That’s crazy.

My mom has MS; she’s on 20 different medications. My dad has Alzheimer’s. I’m a cancer survivor. Hopefully my son doesn’t get sick. But medical issues are huge. Just being able to get by, even retired people too, where they’ve given the best use of their lives and deserve to be able to sit back and rest and enjoy what they worked so hard for. People are concerned about that, about having their pensions caught or about having their access to medical care.

Or whether they’re working now, they’re concerned with being able to pass along what they have to their kids. Before, it used to be you had something a little bit better to pass on to your kids, and that was the cycle. That’s not the case so much these days. We’re lucky if we can pass along what we’re at. That’s not the American dream, and it’s time to make some changes and base our legislation on things that are going to lift up working people.

Ella Nilsen

Do you think you can successfully make a play for Trump voters in your district?

Randy Bryce

Without a doubt. There’s no doubt in my mind. The fact is that he came here and was talking about draining the swamp. People loved hearing that message. But now looking back, it’s what did he replace it with? What he filled it back up with is a lot more toxic than swamp water, and now we need people that are going to stand up to him and demand accountability. Things that are going to help us and not all these ridiculous things that have been based on whims or what he decides to put out on Twitter.