Candidates With Labor Union Ties Seek to Unseat Paul Ryan

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By Tyrone Richardson

Two Democrats with roots in organized labor are vying for a long-shot chance of unseating House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in the 2018 midterm election.

Ironworker Randy Bryce and educator Cathy Myers want to challenge Ryan for Wisconsin’s first congressional district, a working-class area of the state’s Southeast corner that Ryan has represented since 1999.

Bryce and Myers are running campaigns in part highlighting their experience in labor unions to address working class issues. That includes health care and economics, which they say resonate with voters in a district that has had some high-profile industrial job losses. A General Motors plant shuttered in Janesville, Ryan’s hometown, in 2009.

An upset win by either Democratic candidate would also be a major victory for organized labor in the state. Unions are still reeling from a state law passed in 2011 that eliminated most collective bargaining rights for public sector workers across the state.

“This is one of the most important races in the nation,” Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, told Bloomberg Law Oct. 17. “The fact that two union members stepped up is very significant because organized labor is about being involved. Being involved means you are a leader and a worker and willing to take risks to have the changes we need to see in favor of working families.”

Bryce and Myers will first have to square off in the primary race in August. Bryce is considered an early favorite with national popularity from a YouTube video kicking off his campaign in June, in addition to a growing campaign fund of more than $1 million. That eclipses Myers’ campaign fund of about $20,000, according to the latest federal campaign disclosures.

Ryan is heavily favored to defeat business entrepreneur Paul Nehlen III for the Republican bid. His campaign staff is shrugging off all the competition for his seat, highlighting that he won re-election in 2016 by 35 percent.

“Speaker Ryan works tirelessly to represent the best interests of the Wisconsinites that he serves,” Kevin C. Seifert, executive director of Team Ryan, told Bloomberg Law. “Voters know him and believe in what he stands for. I am confident they will continue to support him in 2018.”

Challengers Criticize Ryan’s Actions

Myers and Bryce both tout themselves as different from the House Speaker’s previous Democratic challengers. They’re sharpening campaigns that highlight what they call years of Ryan’s inaction for the district and his allegiance to President Donald Trump and bad, GOP-led legislative initiatives.

Even though the House Speaker is supposed to set legislative agenda, there’s been little help for health care and other concerns for the district, Bryce said.

“All these years that Paul Ryan has been in Congress, he’s talked a good game with things he’s going to get done and in that time we have come from a manufacturing area to a place with abandoned auto plants and people working harder and nothing to show for it,” he said. “This is a direct result of what Paul Ryan is doing in Washington.”

Myers echoed similar thoughts, saying unseating Ryan is “important for voters locally because we aren’t represented in Congress.”

“Paul Ryan uses his powerful position to advocate for his donors, not his constituents,” Myers told Bloomberg Law Oct. 18. “Many policies he advocates for would actually harm his constituents, like his healthcare bill that would have taken health insurance away from 48,900 in Wisconsin’s 1st District.”

Any Democrat will have an uphill battle in the November general election for the district that has leaned Republican in recent years. Barack Obama (D) won the district in 2008, but Mitt Romney (R) edged him out for most votes during his presidential re-election bid in 2012. President Donald Trump (R) won the district by more than 10 percent in 2016.

In addition to nearly two decades of name recognition, Ryan is countering the new wave of challengers with a more than $10 million campaign fund. House speakers rarely lose a re-election bid, three political science professors told Bloomberg Law.

There have been times House leaders have lost re-elections. For example, former Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-Va.) was unseated in a shocking primary defeat in 2011. Challenger Dave Brat, who was elected to the House, pegged Cantor as soft on immigration and part of a Washington insider group out of touch with voters in the district.

Victory a Long Shot

Still, some say the odds are not all against Democrats. A sitting president’s party generally loses some congressional seats during a midterm election, but it’s not known yet if that would include party leaders like Ryan, said Barry Burden, professor of political science and director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

“For Ryan to be defeated there has to be a perfect storm of national and local forces to push him out,” he said. “There has to be a lot of national interest for Democrats across the country to invest in that local campaign. They will need to have the work of more than local field offices and there has to be real dissatisfaction with Ryan for his constituents to want to replace him with a candidate they don’t know well.”

Similar comments were echoed by Marquette University political scientist Julia Azari, saying Ryan’s defeat would have to come amid a national wave of GOP losses like the several Democratic congressional seats lost in the 2010 midterm election.

“Midterm years can be very reactionary to the president and the last three midterm elections all were pretty strong partisan waves of discontent of the administration and that is true across partylines,” she said. “Trump is pretty unpopular and very unpopular at this stage in time.”

Still, state Democratic leaders are hopeful that Ryan’s record on issues like dismantling Obamacare would push his constituents to vote against him.

“Ryan’s votes sabotaging people’s health care while being the primary politician pushing for a tax cut for the wealthy has changed the district’s views on Paul Ryan,” Wisconsin Democratic Party spokeswoman Melanie Conklin told Bloomberg Law Oct. 17.

Meanwhile, the state’s Republican party is honing in on Democratic front-runner Bryce’s streak of political losses. Critics are also likely to try to tie whoever wins the Democratic primary to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and others seen as part of the political machine.

“Pelosi’s image will be no help to the Democratic candidates,” Burden said. “They will want to portray themselves as independent and ready to challenge the establishment in Washington.”

Bryce lost state legislature bids in 2012 and 2014, in addition to an election for the Racine County Board of Education in 2013. Those losses highlight some issues, said Alec Zimmerman, spokesman for the Republican Party of Wisconsin.

“After being rejected by voters three times, Randy Bryce has still failed to show Wisconsinites why he’s not just a far-left liberal activist who they should reject again,” he said in a written statement to Bloomberg Law. “Paul Ryan is a bold conservative reformer Wisconsinites know well.”

Campaigning on Labor Experience

Organized labor is no stranger to Capitol Hill. For example, in 2016, Rep. Donald Norcross (D), a former electrician and president of the Southern New Jersey AFL-CIO, was re-elected to his third term to represent New Jersey’s first congressional district.

A labor union background could prove helpful with the two Democratic campaigns, especially when attempting to drum up support in a region of some union backlash, said Michael LeRoy, a professor at the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois.

“There is pent-up resentment among Wisconsin union members at having had their bargaining rights shorn so deeply by Republicans,” he said. “If they can channel their anger and energy, as it played out in the crammed Wisconsin state capitol several years ago, they have a fighting chance of regaining the seat.”

LeRoy said the teachers unions could especially be an important ally in the campaign, adding that they could “offer widely dispersed, essential grassroots support.”

Myers is well-known for such efforts. The longtime English teacher and member of the National Education Association ran for the Janesville School Board in 2013 to counter actions against teachers unions.

“I was motivated to run for the Janesville School Board in 2013 because I saw how Scott Walker’s attack on collective bargaining rights was dividing our community and causing the best teachers to leave our district,” she told Bloomberg Law. “I won on that platform, served as an advocate for teachers, and earned bipartisan support for my reelection in 2016, more than doubling my vote. Paul Ryan is already my constituent.”

As for Bryce, the U.S. Army veteran and single father says being part of a labor union taught him about the power of “working as a group,” something he’s using in his campaign.

“One of the things you know from labor is you take care of each other and standing together so that everybody takes care of each other,” he told Bloomberg Law Oct. 18. “It’s easier to get it done as a group than to go by themselves and I’m looking to be a steward of the entire district.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Tyrone Richardson in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at

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