Move over, Eric Cantor. A bigger casualty could be brewing in the Badger State.
It’s been two years since he made history in his 2012 campaign to represent Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional district, and now Rob Zerban is ready for Round 2.
“This is an all-hands-on-deck moment,” he told a crowd of jubilant supporters as he announced his candidacy last October. “If we are going to win this seat back, we need to build a tidal wave of support that rises from the shores of Lake Michigan here in Kenosha and sweeps across the 1st District and washes an incumbent congressman right out of his seat.”
And if the numbers from last week’s primary election are any indication, that tidal wave is building.
The 46-year-old challenger dominated the Democratic congressional primary in the 1st District of Wisconsin, taking 78 percent of the vote and defeating Amar Kaleka, a credible challenger who had captured the imaginations of many party activists as he told the story of a community and family tragedy that motivated him to enter politics to fight for gun control and legislation against hate crimes.
Zerban’s win was geographically broad-based. He racked up punishing margins in all six of the counties that make up the district, including a 71-point win in Kenosha County, where he previously served on the county board. His lowest margin was in Milwaukee, where he still prevailed by 30 points.
He even received 83 percent of the vote in Walworth County, the most conservative area of the district. This might be surprising, considering the unapologetically progressive agenda that the candidate continues to lay out in speeches and campaign stops.
But the policy issues Zerban emphasizes have broad support in Walworth County as well as the rest of the district. Raising the minimum wage, fighting for marriage equality, and supporting a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and reduce the influence of money in politics are all policies that play well in this politically marginal swath of Wisconsin. And besides being generally popular with Wisconsin’s voters, these policies are high up on the progressive agenda, giving Zerban’s base plenty of motivation to head to the polls this November.
But there is an ultimate unifier for Democrats and others across the district, someone who would have galvanized them into action with or without a first-rate candidate. The most famous House Republican in America represents this district, and Democrats everywhere are in agreement: It’s time for Paul Ryan to go.
The district is almost evenly divided. Barack Obama captured it in 2008 while Romney narrowly prevailed in 2012, and political guru Charlie Cook rates it as an R+3 district, meaning it’s three percentage points more Republican-leaning than the nation as a whole.
But until recently, Paul Ryan has romped to reelection by margins that Republicans usually enjoy only in ruby-red districts. His sixteen-point victory in 1998 was actually his lowest margin ever—until Rob Zerban challenged him in 2012.
On paper, Rob Zerban was already the strongest challenger Ryan had ever had to face. An entrepreneur, he had created and directed two businesses, a corporate food service company and a catering business. And like any business leader who understands that companies do best when their employees are doing well, Zerban ensured that the 50 people working for him enjoyed solid salaries and excellent benefits. His actions left a reservoir of goodwill behind him when he sold his last company in 2008 with a new mission in mind: a life centered on promoting community engagement.
On the trail, however, he proved even stronger. His years of going door-to-door to inform and engage Wisconsinites on the issues had already given him a political following that propelled him to the position of Kenosha County Board Supervisor. The job gave Zerban a support base to draw on that makes him the most formidable challenger Ryan had ever faced.
In addition to having served with the Kenosha County Board, Zerban also sits on the board of the Wisconsin Business Alliance, while also having served on the Board of Directors for the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters. The extensive public and private sector experience has made Zerban a rare politician who not only understands a wide range of issues, but is also enthusiastic at every opportunity to discuss them with voters. He’s been known to engage groups of two or three people in policy discussions lasting over an hour, and at a time when Paul Ryan is charging $100 for people to attend his out-of-state book tour, Zerban’s personal cell phone number is listed on his campaign website.
Maybe it was this combination of experience, a solid support base in Kenosha County, and friendly and determined grassroots outreach that enabled Zerban in 2012 to come the closest anyone had ever come to defeating Paul Ryan, holding the incumbent to 55% of the vote. Surely the enthusiastic small-donor support also helped power him to the surprise showing; 31,000 donors contributed to his campaign, more than 95 percent of whom contributed in amounts of under $100.
But there was another reason Wisconsinites came closer to rejecting Paul Ryan than ever in 2012. His selection to be the GOP vice presidential nominee was both a blessing and a curse for his reelection race. On the one hand, Ryan’s absence from the district—he ran ads and spent $4 million to hold his seat while refusing to debate Zerban despite a petition containing 50,000 signatures urging him to do so that Zerban personally delivered to his campaign office—meant that Zerban was essentially running against a larger-than-life phantom representative.
But Ryan’s sudden national stature meant that the 1st District’s voters were able to see a side to their congressmen that was hidden before, as Paul Ryan was exposed to a whole new level of media scrutiny. And while he refused to debate Zerban, they were able to see his debate performance on national television against Joe Biden, including an amazing exchange in which Biden forced Ryan to acknowledge he had sent the Vice President a letter requesting stimulus funds for his district—despite the fact that Ryan had derided the stimulus package only seconds before in front of their national audience.
“It was probably one of the best things that could have happened to us,” said Ellen Holly, the chairwoman of Walworth County’s Democratic Party. “I think when Ryan got on the national stage, he was held more accountable… People saw here that what Ryan says and does are two different things.”
But if the vice presidential debate was the finale to voters’ introduction to Paul Ryan’s disingenuous tactics, his media appearances in the weeks before served as previews. In a September 30 interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace, Ryan was pressed to explain how exactly it was that his ticket’s plan to slash taxes by 20 percent while closing unspecified tax loopholes could avoid a skyrocketing deficit.
“I don’t have the — it would take too long to go through all of the math,” Ryan replied.
His reluctance to treat his audience to some basic arithmetic — on Fox News, no less! — was a big clue to many that his famous budget was nothing more than smoke and mirrors, as his opponents had claimed all along. Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney’s secret plan to shrink the deficit while simultaneously slashing taxes and ramping up military spending by $2 trillion would remain the great mystery of the 2012 campaign. The deflections, as Bill Clinton famously said, actually contained a very clear message: You’ll find out after the election.
With the defeat of the Romney/Ryan ticket by a margin of five million votes, the mystery was never solved. But Ryan continues to press his agenda from his perch on the House Budget Committee. And while he is one of the voices calling for soul-searching in the Republican Party and expanding its appeal after its 2012 disaster, his budget announced in the spring of 2013 was neither a bipartisan outreach nor his traditional fiscal sleight of hand. It was a cry for help.
His proposal, called the “Path to Prosperity,” led to charges of hypocrisy because it proposed to cut $700 billion in spending towards Medicare, despite the fact that he had attacked Obamacare on the campaign trail for doing precisely that. But that hypocrisy was secondary to the biggest budget fantasy of Paul Ryan’s career. After Obama had been decisively reelected and Democrats had strengthened their majority in the Senate, Ryan had gone right to work on a budget that assumed the repeal of Obamacare by 2017.
“Are you saying that as part of your budget, you would repeal, you assume the repeal, of Obamacare?” Chris Wallace asked Ryan in a March 2013 interview.
“Yes,” Ryan replied.
“Well, that’s not going to happen,” Wallace replied flatly.
But Ryan went on to insist that it should. In doing so he revealed a truth about his budgets that had already become obvious to most observers. First and foremost, they reflect his own normative thinking, rather than the fiscal and political realities facing America.
“It wasn’t based in reality,” Zerban said when reminded of Ryan’s latest budget. “But then again, none of his budgets are.”
“This is the kind of budgeting,” he continued, “that you only get from a Washington insider, someone who has no clue how budgeting works in the real world.”
Paul Ryan may not understand how budgeting works in the real world. But there is one world he does understand, and might even understand better than anyone else who lives in Washington. “What’s unique about what’s happening in government, in the world, in America,” Ryan declared five years ago, “is that it’s as if we’re living in an Ayn Rand novel right now.”
It’s not the first time that Ryan has invoked Ayn Rand. In a 2005 meeting he credited her as being the inspiration for his career, saying, “The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.”
Of course, her Objectivist philosophy—a celebration of unapologetic selfishness and rejection of altruism—has plenty of fans in GOP circles that appreciate Rand’s championing of laissez-faire economics. But there are some qualities of Rand’s that make her less welcome among other Republicans, her avowed atheism and acceptance of abortion chief among them. By the time he was tapped to become Romney’s running mate, Ryan was ready to renounce her philosophy.
Reports linking him to Rand’s philosophy were “an urban legend,” said the congressman who once passed out copies of Rand’s books as Christmas presents to his interns. “I reject her philosophy,” Ryan said firmly in August 2012. “It’s an atheist philosophy.”
But if Rand were alive today, she might applaud the continuing efforts of her former disciple in Washington. After voting for a $2 trillion war of choice in Iraq and the deficit-exploding Bush tax cuts, Ryan hasn’t always (ever?) been faithful to his professed holy grail of a balanced budget in Washington. But the natures of his budgets, which would slash taxes for the rich while removing protections and safety nets for America’s most vulnerable, all align squarely with Rand’s philosophy.
The irony is that Paul Ryan steadily collected government paychecks all throughout the 14 years he spent in Congress championing Ayn Rand’s worldview that anything beyond a bare-bones government is worthless, while entrepreneurial people are the only kinds of individuals worth being or knowing. Yet he’s never run a business, while his 2014 opponent is a bona fide job creator, the kind of character that both he and Ayn Rand have pointed to as being the cream of the capitalist crop and final hope for society.
But despite Zerban’s financial success and his ascent in the business world, the candidate has never shown the slightest desire to join ranks of America’s plutocrats, or sign on to the movement to balance America’s budget on the backs of her poorest citizens. Having grown up in a struggling single-parent household and been on the free milk program at school before attending college thanks in part to Pell Grants and Stafford Loans, the candidate hasn’t forgotten where he came from.
“I see an America,” he said in his announcement speech, “where every child’s aspirations and ability determine their level of education, not their parents’ net worth or ability to borrow.” To rising cheers, he listed his priorities: fighting to raise the minimum wage, working to help ensure marriage equality, promoting energy independence, and sensible and compassionate immigration reform. “We have to fight to earn this seat back for the people of Wisconsin and the people of this country. I’m ready to stand with you and fight for you. Are you ready to fight beside me?”
And judging by the primary’s landslide results, it looks like Wisconsinites are ready. The crowds are enthusiastic, the meetings are solemn as Zerban’s supporters gather to map out strategy and an unprecedented voter turnout operation to send Paul Ryan into early retirement with Eric Cantor.
Meanwhile, their biggest reason to hope comes from the unreported jam that Ryan finds himself in. His reputation as a policy wonk might be forever tarnished, but there’s one aura that still remains. He’s seen as a safe bet for reelection, when in reality the case for his invincibility is as fallacious as his budgets.
Paul Ryan has been labeled by the Beltway as untouchable when in fact he’s never been politically weaker, coming straight off of a national election loss that made him famous, but also diminished in stature back home as his evasions and fiscal trickery were laid bare. And as one of the most powerful members of a Congress with lower favorability ratings than cockroaches, there’s no reason to think he’s sitting pretty in a marginal district that already gave him a warning sign in 2012—including a vote of no confidence in his hometown.
Wisconsin has already rejected Ryan once in 2012. 2014 could be the year its 1st District calls him back for good.
William Dahl is a recent graduate of The College of William and Mary, where he majored in Government and studied abroad in La Plata, Argentina. He has worked for community foundations in Argentina and Miami dedicated to community engagement and prosecution for human rights abuses. A native Virginian, he moved to Baltimore in 2013 to join a financial research firm, where he enjoys being able to write on the side.