Randy Bryce spent this winter installing windows hundreds of feet up in the freezing air, helping to finish a Milwaukee skyscraper.
Now, he’s the progressive left’s newest celebrity candidate as he vows to give Paul Ryan his toughest re-election test in nearly twenty years.
In an election where an energized Democratic Party has solicited interest from thousands of potential candidates, Bryce stands out: He’s 52, a former iron worker, and sports the kind of bushy mustache found more often in a VFW Hall than a corporate boardroom.
But the House candidate’s unconventional profile — he calls himself “IronStache” on Twitter — has helped make him a star among liberals, who in turn have contributed to his campaign coffers en masse. He’s raised more than a half-million dollars in less than a month, his campaign says, from more than 20,000 donors. The video that announced his campaign has been viewed more than 500,000 times on YouTube.
On Thursday, he won another endorsement, from the liberal Working Families Party and its Wisconsin chapter.
Bryce is a longshot to defeat Ryan in Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District, which Ryan won easily last year and has represented almost unchallenged since the late 1990s. But the popularity of his insurgent campaign has offered a glimpse of a Democratic Party eager to find and support the kind of working-class men and women whose slow drift to the GOP has accelerated under President Donald Trump
“It's coming across and hitting people so strongly because it's a message that everybody wanted to hear,” Bryce said. “Those that would consider themselves working people are like, ‘Hey, there's somebody who’s one of us, who can see some part of my story.’”
In an interview, Bryce recounted his avid support of liberal candidate Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign (and trying to warm his hands last winter while putting in the skyscraper’s windows).
But what lifted Bryce to stardom was a video released when he announced his campaign. It shows footage of Trump congratulating Ryan after House Republicans passed their health care bill in May, before Bryce’s mother makes an emotional plea about the pain — and cost — of dealing with Multiple Sclerosis.
Bryce then challenges Ryan to find a health care plan that will give workers the coverage they deserve.
“Let’s trade places, Paul Ryan,” Bryce says in the video. “You can come work the iron, and I’ll go to DC.”
The two-and-a-half-minute video received national attention, earning him interviews on MSNBC and stories in Politico and Vox. And it had Democrats pointing to it as an example of how other candidates need to talk about health care during next year’s midterm elections.
“This was a masterful launching of his campaign,” said Patrick Guarasci, a Wisconsin-based Democratic operative. “The ad is not only a good ad for Randy Bryce, it’s a perfect ad for everyone running for office in the country.”
Progressives have a lot they can like about Bryce: He’s a longtime union activist, he supports the liberal dream of single-payer health care, and he’s running against a GOP congressional leader they detest.
He also has a blunt style on Twitter, where his “IronStache” moniker tweets less like a professional candidate than a rank-and-file liberal activist.
If Bryce were running against a more unknown Republican, Democrats say, he’d have a harder time trying to catch on.
“He caught fire because the face of taking away health care for 24 million people is his potential opponent,” said Scott Ross, executive director of the liberal advocacy organization One Wisconsin Now.
But allies say Bryce’s popularity is rooted mostly in his appeal to factions of a party that believes it should also be the party of the white working class, but in recent years has attracted more widespread support from younger, cosmopolitan voters.
At a time when the national party is having a public, often heated debate about its future, Bryce offers Democrats a chance to return to their roots, they say.
“We’re not going to beat folks like Paul Ryan by moving to the middle or supporting these kind of self-funded corporate Democrats. At times the party has even attracted that type of candidate,” said Marina Dimitrijevic, state direct of the Wisconsin Working Families Party. “And that hasn’t been working. So let’s try something new and different.”
Bryce is the latest Democratic House candidate to convert his popularity among progressives into a fundraising machine. Jon Ossoff and Rob Quist, two candidates for special elections in Georgia and Montana, respectively, both raised millions of dollars from small-dollar contributors.
Both candidates also lost, running in districts that tilted in the GOP’s favor. It’s a fate progressives might repeat with Bryce.
Bryce has run, and lost, for office before, both at the local and state level. And Ryan — who has deep ties to the district — won his last election with 64 percent of the vote, more than doubling the support of his Democratic opponent. He also has more than $11 million on hand, as of the end of June.
And the House Democrats’ political arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, lists 79 Republican-held seats it considers vulnerable to Democratic takeover but doesn’t include Wisconsin’s 1st District, and Bryce said he’s had little contact with the group.
But Democrats say they think that Bryce’s unexpected celebrity candidacy can at least make the race competitive.
“It's just something so mind-blowing,” Bryce said.