The news didn’t travel much at first. Pocan, who has represented the Madison area in Congress since 2013, is well known as one of Ryan’s most dedicated opponents; Bryce is one of the best-known 2018 Democrats. It’s unusual for political opponents of current House members to attend the speech; anti-Iraq War activist Cindy Sheehan attended in 2006 but ran against then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) only two years later.
But on Monday, as Bryce sat for media interviews in Washington, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) unloaded. Pocan, he said, had undermined the dignity of one of Washington’s great rituals. Bryce could run against Ryan, but to give him a prime seat in the House gallery was too much.
“This is an attempt to sow political discourse and deepen a divide in an already fractured political environment,” Sensenbrenner said in a statement. “Creating a spectacle like this — regardless of position or party — is disrespectful and out of bounds. Worse, Mr. Bryce is using it as a tool to actively raise campaign funds.”
Pocan took a hard swing back at his colleague. “Republicans have zero credibility to discuss the state of political discourse in America or what is disrespectful or out of bounds,” he said in a statement. “I must’ve missed Mr. Sensenbrenner’s remarks when the President disparaged foreign countries as sh*tholes, called neo-Nazis and white supremacists ‘very fine people,’ bragged about sexually assaulting a woman, or even reportedly asked his lawyer to pay off an adult film star using campaign funds.”
In an interview Monday, Bryce avoided taking that tone. The controversy was ridiculous, he said.
“It’s not like I’m going to shout ‘You lie!’ or something,” said Bryce, referring to a 2009 health-care speech by President Barack Obama which was interrupted by a heckling Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.). Bryce said his intent was to sit and watch quietly, as his campaign ran an ad during State of the Union coverage in Wisconsin.
Bryce was not using his appearance at the speech itself to raise funds, though the president’s reelection campaign is promoting a live-stream where donors’ names will be displayed on-screen as Trump speaks.