House Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s hopes of leaving the Republican Party in control of the House could stumble in his own backyard, where Democrat Randy Bryce’s “Iron Stache” nickname has helped raise his national profile and fill his campaign coffers in his quest to flip the Wisconsin seat.
Mr. Ryan’s allies are doing what they can to defend their leader’s legacy with a series of stinging television and radio attacks against Mr. Bryce, leaving him in a tight race with Republican candidate Bryan Steil.
Winning the speaker’s 1st Congressional District, even without Mr. Ryan on the ballot, would be a bellwether win for Democrats.
“If Republicans manage to lose this seat, we’ll lose 50,” said Alex Conant, a GOP consultant.
Mr. Ryan says the GOP deserves to win his old seat and to keep the House majority after delivering on some of President Trump’s promises, including boosting military spending and enacting tax cuts, which he credits with boosting the economy and workers’ wages.
Mr. Steil, a corporate lawyer and former Ryan staffer, has run on a similar message. He has celebrated the tax cuts and said his rival’s platform was inspired by liberal icon Sen. Bernard Sanders — including “Medicare for All” — which would ruin the federal budget.
“There is a real stark contrast here,” Mr. Steil said. “You support raising taxes and sending more money to Washington. I believe more money in our pocketbooks here in southeast Wisconsin is to the benefit of our own communities.”
Mr. Bryce portrays the race as pitting working-class Americans against the wealthiest Americans.
“What we need to is get a Congress elected that is going to stand up for working people and stop these policies that are going to keep filling the pockets of the wealthiest among us,” he said in a debate this week.
Taking on Mr. Ryan was enough to gain some national attention, and his horseshoe mustache helped cement his brand and bolster his fundraising, which totaled $7.9 million as of the last report.
That’s far more than Mr. Steil’s nearly $2 million haul.
Mr. Steil is getting a big assist from outside groups, including the Congressional Leadership Fund, the political action committee aligned with Mr. Ryan, which is airing attack ads.
“Randy Bryce has been arrested nine times and refused to pay child support for two years,” the narrator says in a CLF ad that started airing this week. “Criminal. Deadbeat. Radical. That is the real Randy Bryce.”
Mr. Bryce’s brother says he is voting for Mr. Steil in another CLF ad.
Public polling has been scant. A September survey showed Mr. Steil up, though only by single digits, leaving Democrats with some hope for a marquee victory.
“You could turn that into a national message that would appeal to the movement and draw larger implications beyond the borders of the 1st Congressional District,” said Brian Fraley, a Wisconsin-based GOP strategist. “The Democrats had really high hopes of taking out Ryan, and then when Paul Ryan decided not to run again they were even more excited about the prospects of winning the seat.”
Still, Mr. Fraley doesn’t expect that to happen. He said Mr. Bryce is not a good fit for the district.
Arthur I. Cyr, the Clausen distinguished professor at Carthage College, said the district is in flux and “by no means a safe Republican seat,” though Mr. Ryan remains a powerful political force.
“In terms of Ryan’s popularity, it translates into the Republican edge in the race, which has been narrow but steady in the 1st District,” Mr. Cyr said.
He contrasted that with the gubernatorial race, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker is locked in a tight re-election battle with Democrat Tony Evers and the Senate battle in which Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin holds a double-digit lead over Republican Leah Vukmir.
Forecasters at the FiveThirtyEight website give Republicans a 78 percent chance of defending Mr. Ryan’s seat.
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