Once the great white working-class hope of the Democratic Party, congressional candidate Randy Bryce is now slugging it out against teacher Cathy Myers to just become the Democratic nominee in Wisconsin’s first congressional district, the seat of retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan.
Both campaigns are expressing confidence publicly, but privately, allies of Myers and Bryce aren’t sure who's going to win, despite Bryce’s enormous financial advantage and briefly becoming a folk hero of the Left.
But after Ryan announced his retirement and Myers proved to be a dogged opponent who was able to raise over $1 million, the primary campaign turned into a brutal mud fight, with both sides now running hard-hitting attack ads in the final stretch of the campaign.
One internal poll from Myers' campaign shared with VICE News showed the race tied 33-33 with 34 percent undecided, and another poll from the Republican Congressional Leadership Fund in early July showed Myers with a narrow lead (34-33) with 33 percent undecided. In both cases, the full methodology was not shared.
Bryce’s candidacy went viral in June of 2017 with an online ad leaning into his career as an ironworker and telling Ryan that they should trade places. “You can come work the iron and I’ll go to D.C.,” Bryce said in the ad. It was a fundraising cash cow, helping Bryce to raise over $6 million, the most of any Democratic challenger in the 2018 midterms (not including self-funders like David Trone in Maryland, who has put over $11 million of his own money into the race). Endorsements flowed in from the likes of Bernie Sanders, Wisconsin Rep. Mark Pocan, and the Working Families Party.
But national fame belied some political vulnerabilities for Bryce, such as being delinquent on child support for years before paying it back soon after he declared his candidacy; losses in his previous three attempts to run for office, including for the local school board; and a history of arrests, including driving under the influence.
VICE News also found this past spring that Bryce was purchasing fake Twitter followers at the time he was delinquent on child support and that he had a tendency to exaggerate endorsements. He claimed that Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand had endorsed his campaign when she had not, and he listed on his website several other endorsements from congressmen, like Rep. Joe Kennedy III, who had not endorsed his candidacy.
Those political vulnerabilities came into sharper focus once Ryan announced he would not run for re-election and Bryce’s biggest opponent then became Myers, a teacher and Janesville School Board member.
Working class voters
The shifting narrative in the race has also mirrored the shift within the Democratic Party. In the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s surprise victory, there was a strong focus among many Democratic leaders on how to win back white working-class men, who used to be a bedrock constituency of the Party. But as the dust settled from the 2016 election, the party’s main source of grassroots energy has come from women and people of color, which has helped fuel the campaigns of an unprecedented number of candidacies from both.
The Iron Staches of the party have been lapped by women in the 2018 midterm primaries. A comprehensive analysis by FiveThirtyEight released this past week showed that women have won 65 percent (90 of 138) of the open Democratic primaries thus far that featured at least one man and woman. “[A]ll else being equal, being a woman has been worth an additional 10 percentage points over being a man in the open Democratic primaries we looked at,” they concluded.
Some progressives are frustrated by that framing. “This argument makes me crazy,” Emily’s List's vp of communications, Christina Reynolds, tweeted. “Women are certainly doing well this cycle — those numbers are accurate. But arguing they're winning BECAUSE they're women is something that I didn't see for the many years when men were winning more.”
But the emerging trend of women running and winning could further play out Tuesday night in Wisconsin.
Or as Dennis Hughes, Myers' campaign manager, predicted: “Cathy Myers will win this primary.”
Cover: Randy Bryce arrives after the chili contest winner was announced Thursday, February 8, 2018, at the United Automobile Workers building in Janesville, Wis. (Angela Major/The Janesville Gazette via AP)