In nearly 14 years of representing Wisconsin's 1st Congressional District, Republican Paul Ryan has had no significant opposition for reelection. But this year, as Ryan pursues his eighth term in office and a vice presidential bid as Mitt Romney's running mate, he faces what many consider his first serious challenger in Rob Zerban.
Zerban, 44, is a former Kenosha County Board member and retired business owner. Since entering the race in April 2011, just three months after Ryan started his seventh term in office, Zerban has been crisscrossing the sprawling district to show voters they have a real choice Nov. 6.
Ryan's elevation to the national ticket has been both a challenge and a boon for his rival. While it's given Ryan much more free media than any other year - probably boosting his name recognition even for less-informed voters - it's also exposed the congressman to much tougher media scrutiny. Zerban hopes to capitalize on that.
"Paul Ryan's been given a free ride in the past, for whatever reason," he says. "Now that he's been thrust into the national spotlight, it's become pretty clear he's only been concerned about serving his own ambition, not the interests of his constituents."
For Democrats in the district, Zerban has been a dream come true.
"He is the strongest Democratic candidate that has ever run against Paul Ryan," says Vivian Creekmore, a Janesville Democratic activist. In comparison with his predecessors, "he's raised the most money, certainly has the strongest campaign, is the most active, and has gotten the most attention."
Will that translate into victory? Creekmore admits that in Janesville, Ryan retains a significant amount of support owing more to his popular persona than to his political priorities. "He's the guy everybody wanted to go to prom with," she says.
Zerban, like all candidates, professes optimism. He offers anecdotes about former Ryan supporters who tell him at campaign appearances they are switching their vote. But he also acknowledges the odds: "All incumbents, to the tune of over 90%, get reelected."
Zerban has mounted an aggressive campaign against Ryan that weaves together policy details with the challenger's background. An Illinois native, Zerban tells of growing up with a single mother, eating government cheese and relying on free lunch in public school.
After attending the Culinary Institute of America with the help of federal Pell Grants and Stafford Loans, he went into food service management, ultimately acquiring a contract corporate food-service business and then starting a related catering business based in Chicago's northern suburbs. Between the two, he says, he employed 45 people, making him one of the "job creators" that Republican candidates in particular extol of late.
"The Paul Ryan budget would have taken that opportunity away from me," Zerban told an audience at a Milwaukee Press Club Newsmaker Lunch Oct. 15.
"For me this race is deeply personal," he said. "Pell Grants and Stafford Loans. Food assistance. Heating assistance. Social Security. Medicaid and Medicare. All at risk."
Zerban condemns Ryan's controversial plan to turn Medicare into a program that would distribute vouchers to future seniors to buy private insurance rather than provide it directly. And he criticizes the congressman's opposition to rolling back the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest income-earners.
"I've been a business owner, so I know that pro-growth policy means more than just tax cuts," Zerban told the Press Club audience.
He's also calling out Ryan on social issues, such as the incumbent's opposition to abortion with almost no exceptions. Zerban says he supports keeping abortion legal and keeping government out of a woman's private health care decisions.
Zerban and his wife, a psychologist and community college teacher, moved from Illinois to Kenosha in 2004 when he was still in business, both because they liked the ambiance of the rebounding industrial city and because he considered expanding his business into the Milwaukee market. Instead, he closed the corporate food business in 2007 and sold his catering business in 2008. "I wanted to dedicate my life to public service," Zerban says.
He was elected to the Kenosha County board for two terms from 2009 to 2012 and took an interest in environmental issues, serving on the board of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters.
After Romney chose Ryan as his running mate, Zerban launched a campaign to prod the incumbent congressman to agree to a debate, complete with an online petition drive and the delivery of 50,000 signatures to Ryan's Janesville office earlier this month. But Ryan has not taken him up on the offer.
That Zerban is mounting a more serious challenge than previous Ryan opponents - and that he has greater support from the Democratic Party - is reflected in his fundraising numbers. According to Federal Election Commission filings, Zerban has raised and expects to spend about $2 million - more than 10 times what his 2008 predecessor spent on the race and far more than any previous Ryan challengers. It's even more than Ryan has spent on any race until this year. And it is allowing Zerban - who's already gotten free exposure on national TV with appearances on cable news because of Ryan's dual candidacy - to make bigger ad buys than previous Democrats.
Even so, Ryan, who has raised nearly $8 million, could outspend his challenger by a factor of four.
Ryan's only serious opposition came when he first ran for Congress in 1998 and beat Democrat Lydia Spottswood, a former Kenosha alderperson, with 57% of the vote. In the years since, he has faced little more than token opposition, winning by margins as large as 2 to 1.
Ryan, 42, won those margins despite the district's theoretical even balance between Republicans and Democrats and despite hard-right views that elevate individual economic freedom above virtually all other values.
Ryan campaign manager Kevin Seifert says the incumbent has earned his success thanks to close ties with the voters: maintaining his home in Janesville, holding town hall meetings with constituents, and appearing at festivals and civic events throughout the district. "He's offered solutions to the problems we face and communicated them to voters," Seifert says.
Asked whether Zerban represents a tougher challenge than his Democratic predecessors, Seifert cites polls showing Ryan continuing to maintain a commanding lead.
"Congressman Ryan runs his campaigns the same way every cycle," Seifert says. "He wants to talk about what he has done over the last two years to earn the votes of 1st District residents."
In 2005 Ryan spearheaded an initiative to turn Social Security from an insurance-style program - in which the payroll tax of working residents provides a guaranteed income for retired workers - into a system of private accounts. Ryan's plan called for each worker's payroll tax to be invested directly to build a personal nest egg for retirement; it dovetailed with a broader proposal from President George W. Bush to privatize Social Security.
Both Ryan's plan and the larger Bush effort went nowhere as seniors and others pushed back hard to block any changes. Even so, Democrats failed to translate that into a serious challenge of Ryan the next year.
Redistricting has helped in this regard. Once a true swing district that returned Democrat Les Aspin to Congress term after term for two decades until 1993, the district balanced four Democratic-leaning urban centers - Racine, Kenosha, Beloit and Janesville - with largely Republican rural and suburban communities. After the 2000 census, however, Beloit was moved into the 2nd Congressional District, giving Democrats an even stronger hand there. And after 2010, more GOP-voting territory was moved into the 1st.
Those factors, plus the power of incumbency and name recognition, all continue to make the race an uphill climb, says Craig Frizzell, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside.
"The Democrats certainly are running somebody who has a much better chance of beating Ryan," Frizzell says, noting Zerban's fundraising and his much higher-profile campaign. But he questions whether "much better" will be enough to put Zerban over the top.
Zerban isn't discouraged. "This is a district that President Obama won in '08," he notes. "He did that with winning a lot of support in rural areas as well."
He demurs on whether he would run in a special election if Ryan is elected vice president and has to give up his seat, saying he's focused only on this race.
His advice to voters on Election Day? "Vote against Ryan twice."