A man who used to work as Paul Ryan's personal driver is gearing up to run for the outgoing House speaker's seat in Wisconsin's 1st District, CNBC has learned.
The potential Republican candidate, Bryan Steil, has been courting some of Wisconsin's top donors as he prepares to enter the fray, sources with direct knowledge of the matter said on the condition of anonymity. The race has become one of the most high-profile midterm House contests since Ryan said Wednesday he wouldn't run for re-election.
Steil also had discussions with the leadership of the Wisconsin state Republican delegation — some of whom consider Steil a prime contender to keep the seat in the GOP's hands, other sources tell CNBC.
The state Republican delegation declined to comment.
Ryan's retirement gave the Democrats some momentum in the district, particularly pro-union Army veteran Randy Bryce. Nonpartisan elections analysis site Sabato's Crystal Ball is now calling the race a "toss-up" after the speaker's announcement.
Steil currently is the general counsel and secretary at Charter NEX Films Inc., an independent producer of polyethylene film used for food and consumer packaging. He also is on the University of Wisconsin System's board of regents.
He serves as the first vice chairman on the Rock County Republican board. The largest town in the county is Janesville, home of the Ryan family.
Steil's deep family roots in Wisconsin make him an ideal recruit for those looking for a counter to any Democratic candidate that could oppose him. Both his father and grandfather were private attorneys that worked with clients across the Badger State.
Steil's work under Ryan, though, may be the biggest key for him to gain voters' trust. He worked as a personal driver for Ryan back in the Republican leader's early days in the House. In a 2014 interview with Isthmus, a weekly Wisconsin newsletter, Steil indicated that he learned from the speaker's style of leadership.
"He's a guy who tells you what he's going to do, explains it, and then goes to Washington and acts on his beliefs," Steil said of Ryan. He also added in that same interview that he respected Ryan because he's willing to have "an adult conversation."
Steil declined to be interviewed for this story. A spokeswoman for Ryan did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
When told of the news that Steil was on the verge of jumping into the race, state political consultants explained that he had been considering such a move since Ryan decided to run for vice president in 2012.
"Bryan has been putting these plans together for years and made his desire known to serve the 1st District back when Paul was asked to serve as vice presidential candidate," Brandon Scholz, a veteran Republican strategist in Wisconsin, told CNBC. "Since that time he's been involved with state politics and cutting his teeth in the business community."
Several other Republicans will likely join Steil in a potential primary, scheduled for Aug. 14. Whoever wins will face an energized Democratic base that is swelling with confidence after Ryan's sudden announcement.
That was particularly evident with Democratic candidate Bryce, who has gained some momentum in the fundraising game.
His campaign recently announced he raised $2.1 million in the first quarter of 2018, almost double the $1.2 million he raised in the previous quarter.
That said, Steil could inherit some of his former boss's fundraising prowess. Team Ryan, the speaker's joint fundraising committee, raised a record $11 million in the first quarter of 2018 and transferred more than $40 million from its war chest to the NRCC.