The Race to Replace Paul Ryan Says Everything About Party Politics in 2018

With Ryan out, Paul Nehlen, an open white supremacist, is the leading Republican, while Randy Bryce, a progressive populist, is running as a Democrat.

Kate Aronoff April 12, 2018

Paul Ryan's retirement could be a big boost to Democrat Randy Bryce's insurgent campaign. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The choice is not quite social­ism or bar­barism in the race for House rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Wisconsin’s First Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict, but it’s look­ing awful­ly close.

"More and more Republicans are realizing that the wave is coming and they don’t want to grapple with that.”

Yes­ter­day — fol­low­ing months of rumors — news broke that House speak­er and P90X work­out enthu­si­ast Paul Ryan won’t seek re-elec­tion for the House seat he’s held for 20 years. The deci­sion is a clear boon for Demo­c­ra­t­ic chal­lenger Randy Bryce, an iron­work­er and union orga­niz­er run­ning as a pro­gres­sive pop­ulist on a strong left plat­form, and whose entry into the race last sum­mer may have helped prompt Ryan’s ear­ly retire­ment. Bryce has been endorsed by Bernie Sanders, Our Rev­o­lu­tion, the Work­ing Fam­i­lies Par­ty and oth­er pro­gres­sive forces, and he has raised around $4.75 mil­lion since enter­ing the race. Before going into the midterms in Novem­ber, Bryce will have to win an August 14 pri­ma­ry against anoth­er pro­gres­sive, Janesville teacher Cathy Myers, who has crit­i­cized nation­al Democ­rats’ back­ing of her opponent.

Since Ryan’s announce­ment, the Cook Polit­i­cal Report has changed its pre­dic­tion for the race from sol­id Repub­li­can” to lean Repub­li­can,” and polls could shift even far­ther in Democ­rats’ favor in the com­ing weeks.

With Ryan out, Paul Nehlen, an avowed white suprema­cist, is now the lead­ing Repub­li­can in the race. (Anoth­er GOP can­di­date, Nick Polce, has also reg­is­tered for the August pri­ma­ry, but has raised just $17,799 com­pared with Nehlan’s $160,000.) Nehlen’s recent exploits include get­ting kicked off of Twit­ter and Pay­Pal for mak­ing inflam­ma­to­ry racist and anti-Semit­ic state­ments. He was even removed by Gab — an online haven for the alt-right — for doxxing an oppo­nent alt-right troll. Nehlen is a strong sup­port­er of Don­ald Trump and last year retweet­ed a tweet by fel­low white nation­al­ist Jason Kessler call­ing the neo-Nazi ral­ly in Char­lottesville, Va. an incred­i­ble moment for white peo­ple who’ve had it up to here & aren’t going to take it any­more.” On for­mer KKK grand wiz­ard David Duke’s pod­cast, Nehlen con­tend­ed that Jews con­trol the media.”

Asked about Nehlen’s cam­paign, Bryce tells In These Times that it shows that we have a lot of work to do when some­one like that is a poten­tial nom­i­nee for a main­stream polit­i­cal party…The fact that he’s pick­ing the Repub­li­can par­ty to run in, I think that says a lot.”

Bryce — who, in 2011, orga­nized to stop pas­sage of Wisconsin’s infa­mous anti-union law Act 10 — is run­ning on a plat­form that includes insti­tut­ing Medicare for all and a $15 min­i­mum wage, abol­ish­ing ICE and putting in place a Green New Deal. Tak­en togeth­er, his agen­da rep­re­sents a kind of antithe­sis to the anti-union, Koch Broth­ers-backed Repub­li­can­ism that has ruled Wis­con­sin pol­i­tics for the last half-decade under Gov. Scott Walk­er. Look­ing at the blue wave that’s tak­en place through­out the coun­try, it seems like they’re real­ly hard-up for cred­i­ble can­di­dates,” Bryce says of the GOP.

While Gov. Walker’s office did not respond to a request for com­ment, Wisconsin’s Repub­li­can Par­ty has denounced Nehlen and appears to be scram­bling to find a pri­ma­ry chal­lenger to step in for Ryan in advance of the June 1 fil­ing dead­line. Wis­con­sin State Assem­bly Speak­er Robin Vos, State Sen­a­tor David Craig and for­mer White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus have all been float­ed as pos­si­ble candidates.

It says all kinds of things,” Bryce adds of Nehlen’s can­di­da­cy, espe­cial­ly in these days where we have some­body like Don­ald Trump who won’t speak out against an event tak­ing place in Char­lottesville and then trav­els over to Ari­zona to par­don [Sher­iff Joe Arpaio] from crim­i­nal offences and then right after that goes after the DREAMers.”

As loath­some as Nehlen is, he may have been right about one thing in a recent state­ment to the Wis­con­sin State Jour­nal: I am a mem­ber of the Repub­li­can Par­ty regard­less of what their trai­tor­ous, spine­less appa­ratchiks believe…my Amer­i­ca First agen­da ha[s] a place in the Repub­li­can Party.”

On the oth­er side of the aisle, Wis­con­sin Democ­rats appear to have wind in their sails. In late March, a judge ordered that Walk­er must prompt­ly hold spe­cial elec­tions to fill vacant leg­isla­tive seats, which could lead to more Demo­c­ra­t­ic vic­to­ries. Last week, lib­er­al judge Rebec­ca Dal­let was elect­ed by a wide mar­gin to the State Supreme court. In Jan­u­ary, Demo­c­rat Pat­ty Schacht­ner won a state sen­ate seat that had been held by the Repub­li­can Par­ty since 2000. Ear­ly this sum­mer, the Supreme Court could decide whether to redraw the state’s heav­i­ly ger­ry­man­dered elec­toral map, which would give Democ­rats a much stronger shot at retak­ing the leg­is­la­ture in November.

Rep. Gre­ta Neubauer — a pro­gres­sive mil­len­ni­al rep­re­sent­ing Racine, the sec­ond largest city in Wisconsin’s First Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict — says: Repub­li­cans are jump­ing ship. My read of Paul Ryan’s retire­ment is that he looked at the polit­i­cal cli­mate, real­ized he could spend $25 mil­lion, lose to Randy Bryce and end his polit­i­cal career. He’d rather take a back seat, wait a cou­ple of years and fig­ure out what to do next.

Every­one I talk to is feel­ing hope­ful in a way that they have not in a long time,” she says. Seats where Democ­rats have not run in many years are absolute­ly in play this year…more and more Repub­li­cans are real­iz­ing that the wave is com­ing and they don’t want to grap­ple with that.”

Bryce was sim­i­lar­ly opti­mistic. When we first got in and talked about repeal­ing and replac­ing Paul Ryan, there were a few peo­ple that said it’s an impos­si­ble task,” he says. Today we’re halfway there: we have the repeal part done, and now we need to replace him.”

Kate Aronoff is a Brook­lyn-based jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing cli­mate and U.S. pol­i­tics, and a con­tribut­ing writer at The Inter­cept. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @katearonoff.
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