It started as a typical April morning in Caledonia, Wisconsin – 40 degrees, partly cloudy, rain in the forecast. Randy Bryce rolled out of bed and flicked on his TV.
“I was getting ready to go in the bathroom and take a shower and then I saw the caption: ‘Insiders Say Paul Ryan Is Going To Announce He’s Not Running Again.'” The 53-year old ironworker – and, up until that moment, Paul Ryan’s challenger – didn’t have an inkling this was coming.
“It’s hard to describe the feeling, but it was a lot of happiness,” Bryce tells Rolling Stone by phone as the news is still sinking in. “It was great knowing that we had something to do with pushing him out.”
Ryan’s allies have tried to tamp down speculation that a midterm challenge from the single-payer-supporting union member from Milwaukee had anything to do with the Speaker’s decision not to seek re-election. One went so far as to email a reporter internal poll on Wednesday showing Ryan leading Bryce 55 to 34 percent.
The day before Ryan’s surprise announcement, Bryce’s campaign announced it had out-raised Ryan’s by $1.75 million in the first quarter of this year. That number would have been a significant feat for any candidate, but for one who’s never held elected office before – and, in fact, has lost every other race he’s run (for school board, state senate, and state assembly) – the seven-figure sum was especially eyebrow-raising.
“The goal was always to repeal and replace Paul Ryan with a working person,” Bryce says. “When we took it on, it was something we were very serious about doing, we were very optimistic that it was something that could be done with a lot of hard work. To see half of that mission take place, with him quitting, it said a lot, but it doesn’t mean that its by any means over.”
Bryce won’t necessarily have an easier go of it against a less-famous Republican. The seat he’s running for, Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District, has a Republican advantage of +5 points, and Bryce is an unapologetic leftist in the mold of Bernie Sanders. (Sanders himself has been a vocal supporter of Bryce’s candidacy; on Wednesday he said Bryce is “an opponent that I think could’ve beaten him, and I certainly hope [Bryce] will win the election without Ryan in it.”)
That said, a generic Republican – one without the baggage of Ryan’s proximity to Trump – could pose a bigger challenge. (At the time of his announcement, Ryan’s unfavorability rating is close to 50 percent.)
“It just means it’s going to be a different face, but someone who is going to have a lot of funding from the Republican party. It’s going to be somebody that’s going to carry their water,” Bryce says of the as-yet-unknown candidate he could face in November.
He still has to win the Democratic primary in August, of course, but on Wednesday, Bryce was feeling bullish about his prospects. “We started early; we’ve been able to build an incredible coalition up to this point, and we have over $2 million on hand, so whoever it is is going to have to do some catching up. But we’re confident that whoever does get in is going to be beat in November.”
Bryce does have one prediction: he doubts he’ll be up against the other famous candidate running for Ryan’s seat, Paul Nehlen, in November.
“He was rejected by the Republicans before – I wouldn’t count on him being the one who is going to get a majority of their funding,” Bryce says, “But he is in the race, and that’s something that we need to point out, too: he’s a Republican and that’s the kind of person that we don’t need in Congress anymore.”
On Wednesday, Kevin Seifert, executive director of “Team Ryan,” took the extraordinary step of explicitly denouncing Nehlen’s candidacy: “There are many qualified conservatives who would be effective representatives for Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District, and Paul Nehlen isn’t one of them,” Seifert said. (For what it’s worth, even Breitbart, an early amplifier of the Nehlen’s bigoted agenda, has distanced itself from him at this point.)
While Bryce waits to find out who he might ultimately be up against, he is staying focused on his own message, and on making sure as many of the residents in his district get a chance to hear it.
“It’s like 750,000 people – a lot we still have to reach out to and gain their trust. But a promise that I’m going to make them is that I will make decisions that are going to help them,” Bryce says. All of them, he emphasizes – even Paul Ryan.
Bryce, who kicked off his campaign with a video that challenged Ryan to switch jobs with him, tweeted an application to work for Ironworkers Local 8 at the Speaker on Wednesday. He was quick to tell me it was a joke, though – his coworkers would kill him.
— Randy Bryce (@IronStache) April 11, 2018
“When we came out with that first video, I got a lot of nasty text messages from brother and sister iron workers, telling me, ‘Don’t even think about sending him on my job – he can’t even do his own job in Congress,'” Bryce says with a laugh. “‘Don’t send him to this job where I’m going to have to connect his end of the iron as well.'”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that Randy Bryce’s home district is R+5.