MILWAUKEE (CN) – All eyes in Wisconsin’s primary election Tuesday will be on the race for retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan’s seat and Democrats’ fight to retake the governor’s office from two-term Republican Scott Walker.
In recent history, the Midwestern battleground state has frequently swung from red to blue and back, often ending up a shade of purple. Republicans have maintained a conservative trifecta lately, holding the governorship, State Assembly and State Senate since 2011.
But one of the races this cycle that is attracting the most nationwide shine is the gambit to replace nine-term Congressman Paul Ryan in the 1st Congressional District. Ryan announced in April that he would not seek re-election this fall. His seat is open for the first time since 1998.
The 1st District blankets the farthest southeastern corner of the state, including all of Racine and Kenosha counties, and parts of Milwaukee, Rock, Walworth and Waukesha counties. It encompasses an area from Milwaukee suburb Oak Creek to Paul Ryan’s hometown in Janesville, to Pleasant Prairie along the Illinois border.
For years, the district has been seen as solid Republican turf with some left-leaning pockets.
Ryan has endorsed Bryan Steil, who has worked as corporate counsel for multinational manufacturing company Regal Beloit and is a member of the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents. He is also a former Ryan staffer. Steil is running against, among others, Delavan businessman and Ryan naysayer Paul Nehlen.
But much of the attention for the 1st District race has been focused on the Democratic field, consisting of Cathy Myers, a retired schoolteacher and member of the Janesville Board of Education, and Randy Bryce, a former ironworker turned progressive union activist from Caledonia.
Bryce, nicknamed “Iron Stache,” has made headlines in the past year, developing memorable, Twitter-savvy branding in reference to his former job and his recognizable facial hair.
He has prominent supporters, including U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, who has stumped for Bryce in Janesville. Some of his more progressive policies include tuition-free public college and the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
But Bryce has some baggage as a candidate. Most visible are the nine arrests on his record, including two arrests at public protests in 2011 and this year, and a DUI from 20 years ago to which he pleaded guilty. Myers and her camp have brought up Bryce’s arrest record on the campaign trail.
The two candidates do share positions on many policy issues, however, such as a $15 minimum wage and statewide Medicare coverage. Both prominently opposed the controversial $10 billion Foxconn electronics factory, a project touted by President Donald Trump that has broken ground in Racine County.
Myers also faces questions about her past. She has endured some criticism over a tax credit she may have been ineligible for and over her role in a lawsuit about the alleged misuse of sensitive information by the Janesville School Board.
The race between the two Democrats is close, and despite the fact that a variety of polls and metrics rate the 1st District as pretty safely Republican, the national conversation about a possible midterm “blue wave” has extended to southeast Wisconsin.
The predicted blue wave is also relevant to the gubernatorial race in the Badger State, where incumbent Governor Scott Walker is up for re-election in November.
Walker was first elected in 2010, won a 2012 recall election against Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, and was re-elected in 2014. Walker earned both national ire and commendation for his controversial Act 10 legislation that passed in June 2011. The bill affected public-sector employees’ collective bargaining, health insurance and retirement benefits. It drew large protests in and around the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison after its proposal.
To call the field of Democratic candidates vying to face Walker crowded is an understatement.
There are eight Democrats in the running, and Wisconsin’s electorate seems to be somewhat ambivalent. A recent Marquette Law School poll had Wisconsin Schools Superintendent Tony Evers as the frontrunner, with support from 31 percent of those surveyed, a comfortable margin over the other candidates. But 38 percent said they were undecided.
Among the seven others in the field are former state lawmaker Kelda Roys, watchdog activist Mike McCabe, longtime Madison Mayor Paul Soglin and Mahlon Mitchell, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin and the only black candidate.
Also running is Matt Flynn, former chairman of the state Democratic Party, who has taken heat for work he did as a lawyer representing the Milwaukee Archdiocese during an abuse scandal.
Recent polls show that the November race for governor is going to be tight. In mock general election matchups, a June poll from Marquette had Walker winning by 4 percentage points, while NBC News and Emerson College polls from July showed Evers on top.
The issues that seem to be inspiring the fiercest campaign debates are dollars spent on education and which schools see that support, as well as infrastructure concerns like broadband access in rural areas.
Wisconsin’s prison population has also been a top talking point lately, with a host of Democratic hopefuls expressing varying levels of support and gusto for cutting the state’s prison population in half. Walker said this would require the release of 5,000 violent offenders, a claim that PolitiFact found to be half true.
Wherever votes land on the political spectrum, they would likely agree the governor’s race is a crucial one. The winner will oversee Wisconsin’s redistricting process as part of the 2020 Census.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court remanded a 2015 case accusing state lawmakers of giving Republicans an unfair advantage by carving out gerrymandered voting districts that limited the impact of Democratic votes.
Also on Tuesday’s primary ballot is a Republican race between former U.S. Marine Kevin Nicholson and state lawmaker Leah Vukmir, with the winner advancing to challenge Democratic U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin in November.