Even though U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan is now Mitt Romney's running mate, he's still running for reelection in Wisconsin's 1st Congressional District. And his Democratic opponent sees an opening.
Rob Zerban feels confident he can win the race with the support of the senior vote. Zerban found a Ryan constituent in Janesville -- a 74-year-old Republican -- who's switched his loyalty to Zerban and testifies that his church congregation feels the same. Ryan's controversial plan to make Medicare a voucher program has been off-putting to many senior citizens, and Zerban opposes it. This may increase his appeal to seniors and swing voters and secure the Democratic base.
"I believed from day one that this was a very winnable race," says Zerban.
Ryan's congressional campaign will undoubtedly change due to his new role on the GOP ticket. His policies will now face national scrutiny, and he will often be absent from his district. Meanwhile, Zerban says, "Nothing has changed for me in my race."
A presidential campaign is "more than a full-time job," says University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor Barry Burden. "[Ryan's divided attention] gives Zerban an opening for another criticism of Ryan."
With Ryan touring national stages, Zerban says he will emphasize "how grossly out of touch [Ryan] is with the 1st District."
Ryan's headquarters referred a query to the Romney campaign, which did not return messages.
Wisconsin's 1st Congressional District occupies the southeastern portion of the state, including Kenosha and Janesville. Burden describes the district as "fairly evenly balanced." In 2008, it went for Obama, and before Ryan, Democrats Peter Barca and Les Aspin served as representatives there. But Ryan has held onto the district since 1999 by staying visible to his constituents. Burden credits some of Ryan's popularity to regular newsletters and attendance at town hall meetings.
Zerban has a different perspective. "[Ryan's] been reelected in the past because the Democrats have had a hard time finding someone to run against him."
Zerban thinks he has what it takes to supplant Ryan. His backstory has the romance of rags to riches. He cites his impoverished childhood, in which he ate "government cheese" and relied on federal loans to fund his higher education. Zerban ran two food service businesses, retiring at age 40 for a career in public service.
Zerban's campaign emphasizes his business experience and personal appreciation for government programs. And he's made more headway with fundraising than recent Democratic contenders in the district. John Heckenlively, the Democrat who faced Ryan in 2010, raised just over $12,000 to Ryan's $3.9 million (of which he spent $1.7 million on that campaign), reports OpenSecrets.org. As of July 25, Zerban raised over a million dollars and is still collecting more. With national attention on Ryan, both candidates now benefit from more out-of-state contributions.
While it's not unprecedented for candidates to simultaneously run for reelection to the Senate as well as for president, Ryan's dual race for both vice president and representative stands out as unusual. If elected to both offices, Ryan will likely decline the congressional seat, at which time there will be a special election.
Burden predicts that Ryan will "farm out activity" for the Wisconsin campaign to his staff in the 1st District. And with Ryan on the road, it will be tough for him to debate Zerban.
"A challenger always wants to have as many debates as possible," says Burden. This helps level the playing field and encourages unscripted comments.
Zerban's campaign has already provided possible dates for debates hosted by WGTD-FM in Kenosha.
Burden expects that Ryan will decline many requested debates because he's out of the district. "There's going to be a dance between the two of them and the media," he says.