Ironworker Randy Bryce spent months gearing up to try to unseat House Speaker Paul Ryan in November's election, cleverly cultivating an "Iron Stache" persona for a candidacy that was as colorful as it was unlikely.
Then Ryan decided to retire , transforming a faint upset hope into a race Democrats are dreaming of as the possible capstone in a favorable midterm election.
"It would be fantastic," Mike Tate, former chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, said of the prospect of picking up Ryan's old seat. "It would be very, very sweet for Democrats in Wisconsin. The only thing sweeter would be beating (Gov. Scott) Walker ."
To avert that fate, Wisconsin Republicans are turning to Bryan Steil, a Ryan protege and political newbie hoping to maintain his mentor's legacy, keep the district in Republican hands and deny Democrats the symbolic victory of taking the speaker's congressional seat.
"Bryan Steil fits the district well," said Republican strategist Mark Graul. "It's a similar background that Paul Ryan brought to it when he first ran many years ago."
Or as Tate puts it more bluntly: "He even looks like (Ryan). It's like, God, it's his mini-me."
Indeed, from a distance it's difficult to distinguish between Ryan and Steil (pronounced like "style"). Ryan is 48 and Steil is 37, but they're both slender and dark-haired.
Both grew up in Janesville, a blue-collar city of 50,000 about 40 miles (65 kilometers) south of Madison, and attend the same Catholic church. Both hail from prominent families. Ryan's father was a federal prosecutor; Steil's father served as a University of Wisconsin System regent and as the first chairman of the state lottery board.
Steil, who announced his campaign just days after Ryan announced his retirement, spent a year as an aide in Ryan's Washington office in 2003. He's now an attorney for Milton plastics manufacturer Charter NEX Films and has served as a regent himself since 2016.
Bryce has branded him a Ryan "clone" — something Steil rejects.
"I can tell you, everybody brings their own background to the table," Steil said.
Bryce, a Racine ironworker and union supporter, has been trying to break into politics since Walker signed his signature law stripping public workers of their union rights in 2011. He's run twice for the Legislature and once for Racine's school board, losing each time.
He announced his bid for Ryan's seat in June 2017, touting himself as "Iron Stache," a play on his mustache. He became a hit with Democrats nationwide, riding an introductory video where he weeps as his mother talks about having multiple sclerosis. He generated more than $6 million in contributions by the end of this past July, compared with $750,000 for Steil.
"It would be fantastic to replace Paul Ryan with a working person," Bryce said. "Paul Ryan isn't going to be on the ballot, but his ideas are. He hand-picked someone to follow in his footsteps."
Bryce has baggage. He has failed to pay child support and has been arrested nine times, first for drunken driving in 1998 and more recently for protesting Republican policies. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican super PAC aligned with Ryan, launched one ad calling Bryce a "deadbeat dad" and another featuring Bryce's police officer brother denouncing him as showing contempt for police.
Bryce acknowledges he's made mistakes.
"Like I try to teach my son, if you make a mistake, own up to it, learn what there is to learn and move on," he said.
The 1st District — a mix of rural hamlets and farms and urban centers, including Milwaukee's southern suburbs — is seen as leaning Republican. GOP lawmakers redrew the boundaries in 2011 to consolidate Ryan supporters, and Donald Trump carried the district by 10 points in 2016. A New York Times/Siena poll in mid-September showed Steil with a slight lead.
The Great Recession ravaged the district, most dramatically when General Motors in 2008 abandoned a Janesville assembly plant that had employed thousands. The area is finally recovering, bolstered by Foxconn Technology Group's decision to build a massive flat-screen plant in Racine County.
Asked for their top two priorities, Steil said growing high-wage jobs and lowering health care costs through price transparency and health savings accounts. Bryce responded that he wants to preserve the Affordable Care Act and other social programs such as Medicaid.
Jim Welker, an 82-year-old retired judge from Janesville who described himself as libertarian-leaning, said Bryce lacks any sort of political background while Steil studied at Ryan's knee.
"He knows something," Welker said of Steil while hanging out with his buddies at a Janesville coffee shop. "This other guy (Bryce) is kind of a know-nothing."
George Poppas, an 87-year-old former Janesville alderman, piped in from across the table that Bryce's arrests are embarrassing.
"He's a scoundrel," Poppas said.
That got Phil Blazkowski, a 75-year-old semi-retired community planning consultant who described himself as an independent, fired up.
"He's grown up since then," Blazkowski said. "You ought to forgive and forget. The House is supposed to represent common people and he's a common person."
"Very common," Welker chuckled. "We don't have very many loonies around here so maybe Bryce will get one or two votes."
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