JANESVILLE, WISCONSIN — “It’s funny living in the same town as Paul Ryan, because every time he burps or farts the media is all over us,” says Paula, a server at the Eagle Inn Family Restaurant.
Paula doesn’t have internet at home, and half-boasts that her cell phone is 16 years old. But when I tell her who I’m here to see, she nods knowingly.
Randy Bryce is just as familiar a name to her as it is to you, if not necessarily for the same reasons. His viral video campaign announcement in 2017 — a union steward ironworker challenging the Speaker of the House to trade jobs with him — transformed him from a locally-prominent labor campaigner into a prospective national star for a Democratic party reeling from its failure to stop or fully understand Donald Trump’s rise to power. The burly, mustachioed everyman looks like one answer to months of handwringing about the loss of Rust Belt white working men and women.
Paula’s known about Bryce for way longer than the wave of internet chatter and big-time political attention the ad brought his way. They both worked to fight Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) 2011 war on public-sector unions, and to get him recalled the next year. “As long as it’s not a Republican,” she mutters to me when I tell her why I’m in the small-town diner.
Bryce is coming to press the flesh, and to give curious reporters a chance to see him in action. But there aren’t many of us – just one local TV crew shows – perhaps because the so-called “Iron Stache” has lost his foil. Ryan isn’t bothering to defend his seat, deflating a race that had initially scored huge traction with national political press. Suddenly, the significant calendar digits for Wisconsin’s first district shuffled, August replacing November for those who decided to keep watching the show after the main character had been written out.
Tuesday is primary day. While everyone was anticipating a Ryan-Bryce showdown, public school teacher Cathy Myers was a preliminary footnote in Bryce’s will-he won’t-he upset narrative. But with Ryan exiting stage right, and Bryce’s cash-flush campaign getting less of the midterm season spotlight, it’s now Myers who’s hoping to pull an upset. She doesn’t have Bryce’s money, his web presence, or his backing – from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and state kingmakers alike – but she’s convinced she can do something that observers would’ve called unthinkable less than a year ago: Defeat the guy touted as having the best web-video introduction anybody in national Democratic Party politics had ever seen.
Cookouts, Facebook, and labor
Bryce barely misses the Eagle Inn lunch rush, and with it the chance to chat up voters – one group of four mid-40s guys who carried on about UFOs and Carl Sagan and Alex Jones, and a dozen others tickling at the chicken-noodle soup of the day. The staff whir a bit as he arrives at 20 minutes to 2:00, encouraging the Latinx woman who’s been refilling coffee cups to go talk to Bryce about the immigrant experience before eventually settling on a younger white woman, Destiny, as their emissary to the back table where Bryce and his colleagues settle.
Outside, a man named Gary is squinting up at the Eagle Inn’s roofline, explaining how the crookedness of the corners will complicate his job hanging new gutters for the restaurant. Upon learning there’s a candidate for office inside, Gary strokes the sweat off his blonde-brown mustache and says he’s not planning to vote in the primary.
Business has managed to simultaneously slow down and speed up in the four decades he’s been doing exterior work around here, he says, his old reliance on people calling the phone numbers listed on the side of his trailer proving to be an ineffective and expensive nuisance in the 21st century. Every call to the numbers, he gets charged – a fee that’s jumped from 12 cents to more than 50, meaning every pollster and campaign volunteer and solicitation call dumps a figure into the wrong side of his ledger.
“I’m just getting set up on Facebook,” Gary says. “Used to be just the Yellow Pages and the Shopping News, and that worked pretty good. But their circulation’s down 50 percent, and Angie’s List wants $100 a referral.” His laborer rounds the back corner of the building, and Gary gives a nod then walks off to explain the drooping-roofline problem they’ve got to wrangle with.
Back inside, as Bryce and Destiny talk about the importance of give-and-take solidarity among workers on the jobsite, Paula wraps cutlery and talks about Wisconsin’s political convulsions in the 16 years since she arrived from Montana.
She’s voting for Myers, she says, based on knowing her from years of mutual involvement with local progressive politics. But she’s more interested in talking about the threat of an expanded tar-sands pipeline through the area (“They lie and say they’re not going to do it, but they’re going to have to”), the menace of Walker’s reign (“I worked on the recall until I had blisters on my feet, but it didn’t work”), and, of course, Trump himself.
“You look at what he’s doing and bump, bump, bump,” she says, tapping the side of her hand on the counter, “it’s everything a dictator would do.”
Paula ducks out without visiting with Bryce herself. But not before making sure I know she’ll vote for him in the fall if her friend Cathy doesn’t win on Tuesday. She tells me she’ll look up my website the next time she goes to the town library to use the web.
Grassroots and mudslinging
The Myers campaign HQ isn’t quite empty when I stop in to meet her. A pair of 20-something women gather up their canvassing packets and head out to knock doors as the candidate wraps up a voter call. When she’s done, she swivels an old office chair, one arm missing, over to her campaign manager’s desk and shakes my hand.
“There definitely was a shift when Paul Ryan decided to retire. Before there was just this idea that we need to keep Paul Ryan busy and make him spend his own money, not give it to other [candidates]. And then when Paul Ryan decided to retire and people realized that it was an open race, attitudes shifted,” she said. “[T]hat benefited us, because before then it was we’ll just see who gets the most money and that will keep Paul Ryan busy.”
The tension between fundraising prowess and ground-level legitimacy is a familiar one to anyone who’s followed the Democratic Party since 2016. Every candidate to run the DNC vowed to place less emphasis on glossy TV and web advertising and dump more into field work and personal contact with voters. The heat Bryce got from some of the DNC’s peers on the national stage after his breakout web ad seemed to suggest that not everyone who has a say in the party’s future was ready to ditch Hillary Clinton’s campaign focus on paid media and make a bigger bet on the idea that knocking doors and organizing protests was the right play to revive the party’s future.
The internet makes it easier than ever to generate numbers on how many voters reached, who said they’d do what, who responded to which message. But it’s less clear than ever how reliably those metrics indicate actual engagement, enthusiasm, or willingness to devote time.
“I would encourage people to just simply talk to each other again,” Myers said. “That’s been at the heart of our campaign. We’ve been very grassroots.”
Myers’ campaign is confident they’re within striking distance, despite Bryce’s longstanding and wide advantages on financing, name recognition, and institutional support from local and national establishment Democratic groups. Data wonks at 538 have supposedly found that women candidates in open-seat races get a huge late bump that polls miss, her staff says, and their math suggests that if Myers is within 10 points a week out from the primary she’ll win. The night before the primary, Myers’ team says she’s actually within 5 points.
Though the primary contest barely came up in the briefer time Bryce could spend with ThinkProgress, his campaign seems to have finally broken a sweat over Myers’ challenge. Bryce released an ad just a few days out from the primary, blasting Myers for having criticized him earlier in the race. She pointed out the freeze-frame they used of her in the ad comes from a moment in one of her own web videos where she became emotional recounting a situation where screaming homophobic protesters at her daughter’s school had surrounded students advocating for a Gay-Straight Alliance chapter to open.
The Bryce ad is mild as political mudslinging goes. But Bryce cutting any kind of negative ad in August is a dramatic slide from March, when one Bryce staffer proclaimed to state party officials that he’d already won the primary — and when Ryan hadn’t yet decided to ride off into some lucrative sunset.
With the quieter name and the far smaller war chest, Myers has been on the attack for months. She has fought to get people to believe they should think twice about choosing Bryce to face Ryan, and then Ryan’s hand-picked successor Bryan Steil (the runaway favorite in a more crowded Republican primary also held Tuesday). She didn’t shy from pointing out that Bryce has a DUI on his record from years back, or hitting him over unpaid child support.
With fights still raging over the future of their party, it may be tempting to read the Bryce-Myers contest as a Clinton-Sanders rehash. But the analogy doesn’t actually make sense. The gender politics would cast Myers in the Hillary role, but she’s the outsider who feels the party apparatus has been wielded against her while Bryce is the one cutting ads reminiscent of the “special place in hell” moment from the ’16 fight. Besides, both Bryce and Myers advocate for single-payer health care and put their bodies on the front line of relatively radical immigration protests. If Bernie fans wanted to see the party dragged left, this primary suggests they’ve already won — even if Myers can’t pull off the upset Tuesday.
After a beginning framed around Bryce’s intent to register a stunner against the Speaker of the House, the stage is now set for a different kind of upset in the Wisconsin First. Can a woman who drew down her retirement account to help fund a 14-month campaign out-organize a guy who fits the old optics of how to dye the Rust Belt blue so well that national money went all in on him after seeing how much small-donor money that viral ad brought in? Can the guy who seemed like a mortal lock a few months ago rally local party activists together behind him if he pulls out a squeaker? And can either of them actually reverse the stacked math of this gerrymandered district designed to withstand even the biggest of “blue waves?”
The extremely online Rust Belt
Bryce knows how important the online world is to his current status, in pole position to represent his party – and maybe to help drag it left on issues like Medicare for All. He’s also not especially interested in talking about the downsides of the party’s recent reliance on a high-tech, high-gloss politics of virality, though he acknowledges that the chase for fickle web eyeballs isn’t enough on its own. Tech can’t close the deal, he said, but it’s a great way to start the conversation.
“You have to make that conscious effort. Just because a lot of people are clicking like on your social media posts, that doesn’t mean you’re connecting with people where they live,” he said. “Nothing on social media replaces having one on one conversations with people.”
Bryce remains upbeat about the power of online organizing tools, citing Facebook as a key for the mass mobilizations against Walker’s agenda in 2011.
“That’s when I really found out how useful it was. That’s how we organized all our events. And then it even blew up to a national network to know where Scott Walker was going to be at any given time so we could have 50 people show up anywhere he was,” he said. Bryce mentions that when he helped organize ironworkers, they’d use cookouts as a way to introduce themselves to skeptical people or workers nervous about looking like a snitch. Sooner or later, somebody who’d broken bread with him would reach out if something was wrong at work, and then he’d have a chance to convert a flesh-and-blood experience into a mobilization. “It’s always that one on one conversation that’s what you need.”
Bryce doesn’t seem interested in the suggestion that Walker’s ability to consolidate those gains ever since might suggest more than just the limitations of those tools, but the presence of a fatal flaw. The same tools that Walker says brought all those people together at the state capitol have long since proven at least as potent at driving folks apart.
Over the height of the Obama years — well before Manafort, Trump, and Putin became household names — Walker had developed the politics of division into something like an art form.The union-busting campaign did more than just destroy the financial engine and footsoldier barracks of the old-guard Democratic party. It replaced the soul food of solidarity with the psy-ops of digital tribalism.
At her campaign headquarters a few miles away Monday evening, Myers tells me she’s seen that caustic digital stuff biting away at the relationships and human networks that politics seek to tap, especially in the wake of Walker’s assault on public-sector collective bargaining.
“A lot of people in this community were distraught. All of a sudden, neighbors, people they thought liked them and respected their work and cared about them, kind of turned on them. I know people who stopped shopping in this area, would go out of town, wouldn’t go to restaurants around here if they went out at all,” she said.
The intensity, sarcasm, and irony-laced nature of politics online seems worlds apart from what Myers describes from more than a year of campaigning on the ground in southeastern Wisconsin.
“I went to the heart of the district, which is very red, and I went to the town dump to gather signatures. Because I’ve got to be able to face more conservative people, to justify what I believe in but also just to have conversations with them,” she said. “I want to bring the idea of service back, where I am accessible and available [so that] people can come up to me and talk to me like neighbors, like we used to, like we should always do.”
Trump, tribalism, and pragmatism
Across the street from the Eagle Inn, business is even quieter at the 24-lane bowling center that shoulders up against the sprawling, empty Rock County Job Center in Janesville’s south end. As Bryce and his staffers scoot back toward the busier towns at the district’s east end for the last 30 or so hours of the primary, lane attendant-slash-barkeep Ron is less bashful about talking politics
“I want to vote for the one that’s gonna win in November,” he says. Ron’s a walking avatar for the pre-Walker Wisconsin, when a person could put in their years and count on their pension, when you found ways to stay active as a way to combat boredom rather than stave off foreclosure.
“I’ll rot in hell before I’d vote for a Republican.”
Retired from a union job with GM a few years back, his side gigs at the lanes and slinging wholesale fish at summer markets are as much for amusement as out of need for further income. He likes Bryce, but worries that the old DUIs and child support shortfalls will make it easy for Republicans to repeat their newest trick: Getting somebody into office even though everybody seems to hate him.
“You talk to people and everybody says, ‘well I didn’t vote for [Walker].’ But then he wins again,” Ron says of the governor. “They’ll say [Bryce] doesn’t have the moral character, I guess. But the same people vote for Trump, the affairs, the divorces, does whatever he wants to women.”
A lank-haired regular hears the chatter and steps away from the Iron Maiden-themed pinball machine that’d held his attention to have his say.
“I’ve seen her speak, and I didn’t like the way she presents herself. But I’ll still vote for her in November,” the pinball wiz says.
“I’ll rot in hell before I’d vote for a Republican.”