WASHINGTON, D.C. — As Paul Ryan's political stock soars on a last-ditch campaign to put him on the national ticket, the Wisconsin Congressman has one eye trained back toward his Wisconsin district, where he recently put down $2 million for television ads to defend himself and his controversial budget plan from his Democratic challenger.
Democrat Rob Zerban remains a long shot to oust the House Budget Committee chairman – assuming Ryan doesn’t get picked by Romney, an outcome Democrats eager to take the seat are enthusiastically cheering for.
And while Ryan won easily in the Tea Party wave of 2010, picking up his seat with more than two thirds of the votes, Wisconsin and the Janesville district are complicated places. President Barack Obama won the district in 2008, and the race is being swept by local and national tides: the bitter recall fight that wracked the state over the last two year’s and Ryan’s position as the leader of the GOP’s budget plans.
"Wisconsin is “going to be a place where a lot of ads are run, and it will be a battleground state,” Ryan spokesman Kevin Seifert said.
Ryan’s challenger, Rob Zerban, is a former small business owner and a county supervisor in Kenosha. And he has made Ryan’s commitment to his district, rather than the GOP’s broader philosophical priorities, a key part of his campaign.
“I talk to people, including some Republicans, who have said they can’t be there him anymore because he’s pushing this austere budget,” Zerban said in an interview, charging that Ryan has spent his time in Washington “furthering his own ambitions instead of serving his constituents.”
Zerban points to Ryan’s ad buys, $493,000 in the Madison market and $1.49 million in the Milwaukee market that will start in September, as clear indications he is taking the race seriously. “I do think he’s worried,” Zerban said.
House Democrats, who don’t all share Zerban’s confidence, see at least a chance to pin Ryan down in Wisconsin while still being able to use his budget against Republicans.
“Forcing him to focus his time and his money in his district instead of spreading it around … is helpful to Democrats, there’s no doubt about it,” a Democratic campaign operative said.
Indeed, Ryan is a significant fundraising draw and has his celebrity wattage within GOP circles makes him a sought after surrogate amongst his fellow Republican House members.
Additionally, Ryan is perhaps the best defender of his budget plan and has not shied away from fully engaging Democrats who have used it as a bludgeon against vulnerable Republican candidates because of its changes to Medicare.
“Democrats are beating on Republicans” with charges Ryan’s budget will gut social programs for seniors, the operative explained, “and he may not be there to help them because he has his own backyard to worry about.”
Republicans discounted the chances Ryan will become bogged down in his district.
“He’s got a strong enough team and enough money that I don’t see that being a problem,” a national GOP operative said, adding that Ryan is “not the kind of guy who’s going to let his district fall by the wayside while he’s out campaigning” for other candidates.”
The GOP operative also downplayed the impacts of Ryan’s budget on Republicans, arguing the fact that he wins so often in a solid Democratic district “shows its not impossible to sign on for the so-called Ryan Budget and win in a Democratic district.”
Seifert agreed, arguing that his win in 2010 came after he first laid out his budget plan and that “voters are familiar with these plans, there’s nothing new to them … and they’ve rewarded him for being principled about it.”
Ryan also hasn’t stopped stumping for other Republicans both in and out of the state. He recently did events for Wisconsin Republican Rep. Sean Duffy, and went to Utah to endorse Republican Mia Love’s bid for the House, as well as a trip to Arizona to back Rep. Jeff Flake’s senatorial campaign.
Seifert also noted that Ryan has a sizable cash and fundraising advantage over his opponent, who has raised a respectable $1.28 million so far off of national Democrats' dislike for Ryan. He also noted that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee “hasn’t shown any interest in getting involved” in the campaign.
Nevertheless, those attacks clearly have at least some Republicans worried. For instance, Montana Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg has made his opposition to Ryan’s budget a central part of his Senate campaign against Democratic Sen. Jon Tester this year.
House Democrats, though, are most enthusiastic at the process of Romney’s adding Ryan to the ticket.
And Republicans say they would likely lose Ryan’s seat if he takes the vice presidential nomination. “We can’t afford to play. It would be really tough to get a candidate together,” one GOP operative said.
Said a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Jesse Ferguson, of the conservative push for a Romney-Ryan ticket: “This is the first time I’ve ever agreed with the Wall Street Journal editorial board.”