Wisconsin labor not taking a Randy Bryce victory for granted
Randy Bryce on the campaign trail | Susan Ruggles

MILWAUKEE – The first congressional district in Wisconsin was so badly gerrymandered that the largely unknown Republican, a Paul Ryan clone opposing Democrat Randy Bryce, is hanging on only a point behind Bryce in the polls.

Even Republicans are surprised, having expected Bryce to be way ahead of them. They have so gerrymandered the district in their party’s favor that for now, at least, the race is close. They can’t be confident of the outcome, however, as the blue wave around the country grows bigger and bigger. The gerrymanders hurt Democrats but they are proving to be something that can be overcome.

Speaker of the House Ryan, remember, has won the district for 20 years, seldom with less than 60 percent of the vote and soaring as high as 67 percent in 2016 (partly riding the Trump surge, his election as Speaker of the House in 2015 and his favorite son stint as vice presidential candidate on Mitt Romney’s ticket in 2012).

Then last April he shocked the nation and used his teenage children as a pretext that it was time to go home at age 48. He pretended that it was not his own unfavorables for slashing Medicare that many Republicans hate and fear as much as Democrats do. He was also trying to pretend that Bryce hadn’t thrown the scare of his life into him.

But “Iron Stache,” as Bryce is called, had. Early polls put the ironworker ahead as his “working man’s” campaign caught fire with stories that went out across the country. He has been getting more headlines and more enthusiasm from the electorate and enough money to compete against Ryan’s deeper coffers.

Ryan also suggested he was weary of being Speaker of the House, third in line for the presidency, without confessing it is a role he was horribly bad at, never having gained control of the divisive House Republican factions and likely to be the figurehead blamed as they lose to the Democrats in 2018.

He has lingered painfully in national headlines even as Bryce handily beat a primary opponent in August and was raising enthusiasm and campaign money at three times the rate of Ryan’s replacement.

Yet Ryan’s replacement remains stubbornly a percentage point behind. It’s laughable and scary, confirming how deeply the GOP machine had gerrymandered CD1 in Ryan’s favor – anyone who looks vaguely like him can step in and pick up all his dark money and poll numbers.

That person is Bryan Steil, who served as a driver as well as a supporter for Ryan. Steil is a corporate attorney who finagled through their friendship a stint as University of Wisconsin regent.  He has never wanted or run for elected office.

He is such a cardboard figure as candidate that the Bryce campaign has used B-roll footage from Steil’s campaign as a silent movie, amusingly borrowing from Monty Python by calling it “The Life of Bryan,” adding honky-tonk music and titles and creating a hilarious parody that is getting thousands of views on YouTube.

Meanwhile, the Koch brothers and Americans for Prosperity are pouring millions in dark money behind Steil, hoping that heavy advertising will reverse the tide.  Even as the impact of dark money is bleeding away in the district, they plan to play up everything negative in Bryce’s story.

As his own video ads reveal, Bryce entered the army after graduating from Milwaukee’s  Rufus King High School. He had youthful bouts with driving without a license and drinking. And with cancer. Like many union construction workers whose work is seasonal, he fell behind on child support and then caught up. But the GOP can’t make much of his later brushes with the law – they were all for things like protesting Act 10 or standing with immigrant workers. His campaign put it simply to Rolling Stone: “Voters are not concerned about a mistake from 20 years ago.”

To this point, thanks to the B roll YouTube parody and other realities, there is more reason to parody the life of his opponent.

But Democrats can’t take this race lightly, not with the history of the district and the dark money assembling in the wings.

Republicans have such faith in gerrymandering that they are spending more to employ it, warns Eric Holder’s National Democratic Redistricting PAC. The Republican State Leadership is sinking $125 million to revive the REDMap project that rigged districts like Ryan’s in 2011. ALEC is stepping in with more money and Holder’s group has become a direct financial target of new GOP trusts.

The gerrymandering is a heavyweight. While Obama carried the district in 2008, Ryan still won, though some of his ads reflected an “I feel your pain” kin to Democrats. After the 2010 Census and complete party control, the GOP went to deeper packing and cracking for the district on the edge of Milwaukee.  An analysis in Isthmus and by others described the process. The GOP kept a toe in Ryan’s Janesville – he had been losing his home city for years —  cut loose more of Democratic Rock County along the border with Illinois and added some of Waukesha County’s most conservative suburbs. The less liberal suburbs of Milwaukee were plucked out while the Democratic sections were “packed” more into popular Democrat Rep. Gwen Moore’s district, CD 4.

It was an alternative universe of map making – a bubbling lopsided pancake rather than the simple rectangle that could have been easily achieved. Walworth and Waukesha counties join Rock, Racine and Kenosha counties, along with slivers of Milwaukee.  That way, the GOP presumed, Republicans would hold sway in perpetuity.

But people change. Families grow and move and issues change.  That’s happening all over CD 1, even in once “safe” Republican cul de sacs. The blind Republican belief has vanished, replaced by a range of new concerns, new diversity, new ways of communicating.

The old GOP techniques of heavy advertising will remain, but they don’t seem to be working as easily anymore. Uphill, sure. But look at who’s ahead in the polls.


Dominique Paul Noth
Dominique Paul Noth

Dominique Paul Noth for the past decade was editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and website, milwaukeelabor.org. He now writes as an independent journalist on culture and politics.