Does Ryan's VP Run Imperil His House Race?

Does Ryan's VP Run Imperil His House Race?

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - August 17, 2012

Paul Ryan once carpooled with his Democratic challenger to a debate in Wisconsin's 1st Congressional District -- his opponent, Jeff Thompson, needed a ride, and Ryan obliged.

Ryan's supporters say the anecdote reflects the congressman's affability and "everyman" persona. But his detractors say it underscores that Ryan has never had serious competition for his seat. (Thompson challenged Ryan four times, loosing by at least 26 percentage points in each election.) Ryan won’t be carpooling to, or participating in, any debates in his district this time around, but his selection as Mitt Romney’s running mate has drawn attention to his 2012 congressional opponent.

Ryan will be running in two races in November, as Wisconsin law prohibits him from dropping his House re-election bid this late in the cycle. (Joe Biden and Joe Lieberman both ran, successfully, for their Senate seats while also on the national ticket.) On paper, the southeastern Wisconsin district near Milwaukee looks like friendly terrain for Democrats: It’s home to blue-collar workers and swung for Barack Obama after backing George W. Bush in 2004. But Ryan’s strong hometown ties (he was born and raised in Janesville, where he and his young family still reside), popularity, command of retail politics and fundraising prowess have served him well there. Obama carried the district by four points in 2008, but Ryan won re-election by 29 points in that same election.

Republicans say Ryan’s district dynamic gives him crossover appeal on the presidential level in Wisconsin, a traditionally blue-trending state that looks more competitive with Ryan in the mix. But his Democratic challenger, Kenosha County Supervisor Rob Zerban, insists that Ryan’s elevation to the national ticket puts the congressman’s controversial budget proposal under a magnifying glass, highlighting a liability that likeability might not overcome. Congressional Democrats have been using the Ryan budget as an albatross around their opponents’ necks in nearly every race across the country, and Ryan’s own district could be Ground Zero in that regard.

“Ryan has put himself in a position where he’s now become a national punching bag,” said a Democratic strategist familiar with the Zerban campaign. “It is now a national election.”

While the budget issue could contribute to the defeat of some candidates this cycle, observers on both sides of the aisle say Ryan is likely to win re-election, regardless of what happens in the presidential contest. “I think either way he is going to hold his congressional seat,” Lydia Spottswood, who ran against Ryan in his first House bid in 1998, told RCP. “Zerban seems very authentic to me . . . but Ryan, possibly because he is the VP candidate, there will be tremendous turnout for him. I think [Zerban] has an uphill challenge.”

The seven-term lawmaker, only 28 when he ran for the first time, was initially considered the underdog against Spottswood. He had recently moved back to Janesville after several years working as a Capitol Hill staffer and later for a think tank. Ryan’s strategy, Spottswood recalls, was stressing his hometown connections and separating himself from the Washington culture. He ran biographical ads: One featured a cemetery, from which Ryan touted his family’s community legacy. Another showed him talking to construction workers while wearing a hard hat and a button-down shirt -- to convey his family’s business in the building industry.

“He was, I felt, very well scripted for his campaign,” says Spottswood. “He was young and I think a lot of people underestimated him . . . but we would not be able to just take the campaign lightly, and we felt there were some serious powerbrokers behind his candidacy.” (Former vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp, a Ryan mentor, went to bat in the district for the young House hopeful.) Ryan defeated Spottswood, 57 percent to 37 percent. From then on, she says, “people didn’t feel they could raise sufficient funds to make a go of it” in future races against Ryan.

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Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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