Democratic ironworker Randy Bryce aims to turn Paul Ryan's seat blue for the first time in more than 20 years

  • Randy Bryce won the Democratic primary for Wisconsin's 1st Congressional District and aims to replace the retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan.
  • Ryan's handpicked successor, Republican Bryan Steil, will face Bryce in November's election for the red-leaning district.
  • Bryce, an ironworker and Army veteran, easily leads the fundraising race for the seat but already faces attacks about his arrest history.
Randy Bryce and Bryan Steil will be running for Paul Ryan's seat in Wisconsin's 1st District. 
Randy Bryce and Bryan Steil will be running for Paul Ryan's seat in Wisconsin's 1st District. 

A Democratic ironworker fueled by a massive fundraising haul will try to win a district that Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan and his GOP predecessor held for more than two decades.

Randy Bryce, who won Wisconsin's 1st District Democratic primary on Tuesday, embodies his party's strategy as it pushes to flip red-leaning seats and take a House majority in November. The Army veteran and cancer survivor has raised piles of money from mostly small-dollar donors as he promotes a platform of protecting workers, expanding access to health care and shielding social safety net programs.

But Bryce faces a difficult task in turning the GOP-leaning 1st District blue as Ryan heads to retirement. He will have to overcome Republican opponent Bryan Steil, Ryan's former aide and handpicked successor behind whom the House speaker has put his fundraising clout. The Democrat already faces a slew of attacks from GOP groups over past arrests, including one for driving under the influence.

Steil, who earned an endorsement from President Donald Trump on Wednesday morning, is a slight favorite to win November's election. Still, Democrats project confidence that they can score a major coup in flipping the seat now occupied by the House's most powerful member, in part with messaging about the difficulties working-class Americans face.

"Working people have been shut out of politics. Working families have been forgotten by their representatives," Bryce said as he accepted the Democratic nomination on Tuesday night. "But we took a stand. We fought back."

Bryce, who is nicknamed "Iron Stache" because of his occupation and thick mustache, entered the race before Ryan announced his retirement in April and initially planned to challenge the House speaker. When Ryan said he would not seek re-election, the race quickly became more favorable to Democrats.

The seat has a solid Republican foundation: Cook Political Report's Partisan Voter Index, which gauges how a district votes in presidential elections relative to the country as a whole, lists it an R+5 district. Cook, a nonpartisan website, considers the seat one that leans Republican, while the nonpartisan Sabato's Crystal Ball considers it a toss-up.

One potential concern for the GOP surfaced on Tuesday: More Democrats than Republicans voted in the district primary. The GOP easily outvoted the Democratic Party in the 2014 primaries.

Bryce leads the fundraising race

As of late last month, Bryce had a clear fundraising advantage over Steil. He had raised $6.2 million and spent about $4.6 million, with $1.7 million left in the bank. The Republican had raised about $750,000 and spent $119,000, with $631,000 on hand at that time.

Steil, the general counsel for a company that produces polyethylene film, has already started to cast Bryce as unfit for the district's priorities. In accepting the nomination Tuesday night, he said that "voters will see a clear contrast between my problem-solving approach and the far-left policies of my opponent."

Bryce, for his part, has tied Steil to Ryan's long-held goal of restructuring programs such as Social Security and Medicare. He is among numerous Democrats around the country who have made raising concerns about GOP funding cuts from the programs a central message of their campaigns.

While outside groups have not started spending heavily in the district yet, Steil looks set to get support from the Ryan-linked Congressional Leadership Fund and the National Republican Congressional Committee. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee includes Bryce on its "Red to Blue" list of high-profile GOP seats it is targeting.

Republican groups go after Bryce

The Congressional Leadership Fund targeted Bryce quickly after his primary win. The group started to run a radio ad Wednesday highlighting Bryce's nine arrests, including for driving under the influence and for driving with a suspended license.

"It's of no surprise that the Republicans have come out of the gates swinging, they are scared. They should be scared" after seeing Tuesday's turnout, said David Keith, Bryce's campaign manager. He contended that the GOP has focused on Bryce's past because it has "nothing to run on."

Both candidates have received backing from party heavyweights. Trump gave Steil what he called his "complete and total" endorsement in a Wednesday tweet.

Ryan has also committed to campaigning and fundraising for his former aide. Following Steil's primary win, the House speaker called him the "right person" to succeed him in the district.

Bryce got an endorsement from Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent and leading figure on the political left, among other members of Congress. In a campaign stop last month, Sanders described Bryce as a candidate whose policies would boost workers rather than corporations.