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Politics & Government

Rivals Eye House Speaker Paul Ryan's Janesville Seat

Marti Mikkelson
House Speaker Paul Ryan held an "employee" town hall in Oak Creek earlier this month

The 2018 elections are more than a year away but already, several candidates are talking about challenging Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan. He’s held his seat in his hometown of Janesville for nearly 20 years. Many voters are upset with Ryan’s shepherding of a replacement to the Affordable Care Act through the House, and that he hasn’t held any open town hall meetings in his district since the presidential election. With poll numbers sinking, Ryan’s critics believe the time has never been better to topple the well-financed incumbent.

It’s noon on Saturday and several hundred people pack a town hall meeting in Racine, a Democratic stronghold in Paul Ryan’s district. The group Citizen Action invited the House Speaker to answer questions, but as expected, he didn’t show up. Instead, a Democratic congressman from a neighboring district presides. Carl Lassiter says he wants Ryan to face voters who are upset with him.

“I think Paul Ryan is a slick politician who’s afraid to talk to people who differ from his point of view.”

Another constituent is Mary Totero. She thinks Ryan is out of touch with the people of his district.

“I do not believe that Paul Ryan, my congressman, has any concerns about the middle class or the lower class or for any of us, actually.”

Totero says she plans to campaign for Randy Bryce, an iron worker and army veteran. Bryce announced in June that he will be running as a Democrat against Ryan in 2018. Bryce’s announcement video went viral and gained him some national press. He told MSNBC his number one campaign issue is health care, and it’s personal. Bryce says his mother suffers from multiple sclerosis, and he has battled testicular cancer.

“I have to worry about cancer coming back for me. I have to worry about my son playing on a jungle gym and getting hurt and just being a kid and it affects my mother who is the star of the video.”

In the meantime, Paul Ryan has spent much of the summer dealing with the now-collapsed Republican health care bill. The Speaker defends his decision to hold what he calls “telephone” town hall meetings, where constituents phone in their concerns. And, he recently visited a couple of businesses in his district, and took questions from employees. Ryan says he prefers these types of private interactions, to public town halls.

“I don't want to have a situation where we just have a screaming fest or a shouting fest and people are being bused in from outside the district to get on TV because they’re yelling at somebody. That does nobody any good.”

While some constituents think Ryan is out of touch with the district, others think he’s doing a great job. Mike Kendziora is having breakfast at Gyros West, a diner in the Republican stronghold of Waukesha. He says he plans to vote for Ryan in 2018.

“I’m a conservative Republican at heart and I like his views on a lot of constitutional things, especially the 2nd Amendment. I like his tax plans.”

Kendziora doesn’t think Ryan will have any problem winning re-election, and the polls bear that out. A Public Policy Polling survey this past spring saw Ryan’s numbers plummet to an all-time low of 21 percent nationally, after health care talks fell apart. But, a survey by the same company of voters only in Ryan’s district, has him with a 43 percent approval rating.

Carroll University Political Scientist Lilly Goren says any opponent would have to overcome the Speaker’s formidable war chest. Ryan reportedly has more than $9 million on hand.

“I have a feeling it would take a lot of money, a lot of support from the national Democratic Party, as well as a real potential wave election.”

Other candidates looking to oust Ryan include Cathy Myers, a school board member from Janesville. And Ryan could face a primary challenge from an old foe: Republican Paul Nehlen has announced his intention to run. It would be a rematch from 2016’s Republican primary, in which Ryan beat Nehlen by 68 points.

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