Paul Ryan’s Other Race Is No Guarantee

Paul Ryan has two races to worry about. You know about the first one. But he also has his own seat in Congress to defend. Yes, he’s running for both at the same time.

As Ryan seeks to win reelection to his seat in Wisconsin’s First Congressional District while he is trying to push the Romney-Ryan ticket to victory, he is finally encountering a formidable challenger in Rob Zerban after seven easy elections.

Zerban, a 44-year-old small businessman from Kenosha raised by a single mother on government assistance, has been sounding populist themes that seem to resonate strongly in a district beset by deindustrialization, falling wages, rising poverty, and widespread insecurity.

“Ryan’s political views are dangerously extreme, and they’ve hurt the people of this district,” Zerban told The Progressive. “His support for free trade has put people out of work in Kenosha [where Chrysler moved 850 engine jobs to Mexico] and Janesville [although Ryan clumsily tried to blame President Obama for a GM shutdown announced seven months before he took office], and his opposition to unemployment insurance has dramatically hurt working families here in the district. The bottom line is: voters don’t like Ryan’s plot to voucherize Medicare, gut student loans, and slash popular tax credits that working families rely on.”

For deeply frustrated progressives and labor advocates, Zerban represents a long-awaited serious threat to Ryan. “Zerban is able to relate to what working-class and middle-class people are facing in this district,” observed Ron Thomas, secretary of the Racine AFL-CIO Council. Zerban has been waging a serious campaign, with a busy schedule of public appearances and strong fund-raising efforts. He has raised a reported $1.7 million, well below the $5.4 million Ryan has available but enough to establish a much higher level of visibility and credibility than any of the previous Democratic opponents of Ryan. (From 2000 to 2010, Ryan outraised his opponents by a combined 31 to 1. In 2012, Ryan’s advantage was 325 to 1.)

“So Zerban has a chance against Ryan that we in labor haven’t seen in years,” said a hopeful Thomas.

“This is the most competitive race that Paul Ryan has ever faced,” agreed Ron Frederick, editor and publisher of The Labor Paper, a weekly based in Kenosha. “I think Rob Zerban will do very well against Ryan. Zerban has good policies, and Ryan has to deal with the fact that no one is minding the store while he is running for vice president. “

With Ryan not committing himself to any debates against Zerban, he has been called on by the clean-government group Common Cause and members of the media, including the Racine Journal Times, the Kenosha News, and the Madison-based Capital Times, to face off against Zerban in public.

While Zerban’s message resonates among those precariously surviving in troubled communities of the First District, he still faces formidable obstacles.

First, deindustrialization not only wipes out the economic base of factory towns, it also tends to diminish and deplete the social networks that were traditionally the basis of working-class political power.

Second, Ryan’s ascent has been fueled by massive donations from the billionaire Koch brothers, private-equity tycoon Paul “the vulture” Singer, and Goldman Sachs, as well as a host of other major financial, pharmaceutical, and medical interests. Should Ryan begin to slip in First District polls, these forces stand ready to replenish his campaign war chest so that he can engage in a media carpet-bombing of the district.

Finally, national Democratic leaders perceive Ryan as a skillful, well-entrenched seven-term incumbent with seemingly unlimited financial backing. So much of the resources for Congressional races both nationally and in Wisconsin have been focused on unseating first-term Tea-Party Republicans Reid Ribble and Sean Duffy, both of whom have experienced shaky first terms.

But the First District has already suffered from a lengthy history of neglect that has allowed Paul Ryan to exert enormous influence nationally while brutally ignoring the urgent needs of his constituents for a higher minimum wage, extended unemployment benefits, training funds, health care, and foreclosure assistance. It would be tragic to witness a lack of Democratic support for the most credible challenge to Paul Ryan and the misery he has imposed on his district.

Adds Zerban: “People are realizing his radical ideas are the disease—not the cure.”

Roger Bybee is a freelance labor reporter who writes frequently for The Progressive, In These Times, and Z magazine. He wrote the cover story "The Truth About Paul Ryan" for The Progressive in March 2011.