LAKE GENEVA, Wis. — On Friday, CNN reported that Randy Bryce, the Democratic union organizer running for Congress in Wisconsin’s 1st District, had been arrested for marijuana possession in 1991 and driving under the influence of alcohol in 1998.
Bryce owned up to the arrests, and told CNN that he had grown and changed over the past 20 years. But the timing was brutal: Bryce was 48 hours away from debating Cathy Myers, a school board member in Paul D. Ryan’s hometown of Janesville, who is also seeking the Democratic nomination for the retiring House speaker’s seat. When they met, in front of 200 voters in a high school auditorium, it took Myers just 30 seconds to go on the attack.
“We’re not going to hold Trump accountable with viral tweets and poll-tested one-liners,” said Myers, sitting at the other end of a long table from a poker-faced Bryce. “We have to elect someone that is not going to be able to win, but to serve.”
The Democratic primary in Ryan’s southeast Wisconsin district, which has been reliably Republican since the party’s 1994 landslide, has quietly become one of the most bitter in the country. Bryce entered the race last June with a viral video ad that made him a left-wing sensation, memorably described as a candidate who had been “genetically engineered from Bruce Springsteen songs.” Myers declared her own candidacy a few days later, and did not become a left-wing sensation.
But a year in the spotlight has occasionally left Bryce burned. In November, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported that Bryce had been delinquent on child support, and paid up shortly after entering the campaign. It was not the only debt he paid off, but Myers hammered on the child support issue to argue that Bryce was too toxic and unreliable to win.
“I know what it means to sit down at the kitchen table and make ends meet,” she said near the start of Sunday’s debate. She returned to the subject an hour later: “Even when my ex-husband fell behind on his child support, I took an extra job.”
On the issues, Myers and Bryce hardly disagreed. Both promised to support “Medicare for All” legislation if they got to Congress. Both favored increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour. Both argued that the key to winning a conservative district was exciting the voters who stayed home in 2016, and convincing working-class Trump voters that Democrats had more to offer than Republicans.
With so little separating her from Bryce, Myers went all in on character. Polling inside her campaign found that when voters learned of Bryce’s negatives, she surged into a lead, despite national money and endorsements. Republicans attacked Bryce as simply not smart enough for the job, an argument that Myers sometimes echoed.
After a writer for the New Yorker quoted Bryce as saying that labor unions had grown complacent before Gov. Scott Walker’s 2011 assault on collective bargaining, Myers said that she was “disappointed, but not surprised, that Randy would speak on an issue he clearly does not understand.” (Bryce was arrested during the protests against the labor reform bill.)
Bryce, whose fame led to strong fundraising and a long list of endorsements, never punched back. His campaign’s strategy was focused, at first, on Ryan. After Ryan’s surprise retirement in April, Bryce began congratulating his supporters for helping “repeal and replace” the speaker of the House, and presenting himself as the natural successor. Myers challenged him to six debates; Bryce agreed to two.
Sunday’s debut performance found Bryce striving to live up to the national hype, and Myers assuring voters that he never could. In giving his own opening statement, Bryce looked up and down from notes and emphasized that “the average member of Congress is a millionaire,” out of touch with the district. When the subject turned to health care, Bryce told the story of a relative who “sent me an attaboy email about the campaign,” but expected to be dead before the end of Bryce’s first year as a congressman, unable to pay for medical treatment.
“We have people in this country who are planning to die because they can’t afford to live,” he said. “These Republicans aren’t going to be done until we’re all living with dirt floors. If you have a problem with socialism — well, what about corporate socialism?”
For much of the night, Myers and Bryce largely traded personal stories or sharp lines about their economic policies. Both condemned immigration policy as carried out by the Trump administration; Bryce, one of the first Democratic candidates to call for abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, called for it again. Myers suggested it should be folded into the Department of Justice. Bryce’s campaign saw that as a gaffe — why give Attorney General Jeff Sessions that portfolio — but Myers meant it as the setup for an attack.
“I’m interested to hear your position,” she said, looking at Bryce. “Apparently you flipped on that. A while ago, you expressed support for the idea of police coordinating with ICE.”
By coincidence, Myers said that right before a pause in the debate, to coordinate with a live radio broadcast. The attack had five minutes to sink in before Bryce could respond.
“I made a statement a while ago that local law enforcement should be given all the tools they need — my father’s a retired cop — but not to do extra work,” said Bryce. “MS-13, that’s a criminal issue, right there. The people coming here to better their lives should not be treated like the criminals.”
But Myers kept coming at Bryce, with the same tactic — stating their agreement on issues, then asking Bryce to explain why he couldn’t stay consistent. After both candidates denounced “corporate” PAC money, Myers said that Bryce was misleading people.
“Your finance reports suggest otherwise, as far as corporate PACs are concerned,” she said. “Now, you directly haven’t accepted money from corporate PACs. But the PACs you’ve accepted money from have been funded by corporate PACs. One of those happens to be General Dynamics, which is a defense contractor, which has been profiting from the separation of families at the border. I was wondering: Would you consider returning that money?”
Bryce raised an eyebrow. “I have not seen any finance report that says we’ve gotten money from General Dynamics,” he said.
Both candidates used the 90-minute debate to lay out their overlapping agendas, and their alternate theories of who could actually win. But when it was all over, Bryce walked into a scrum of TV cameras and faced more questions about his legal issues.
“Why should somebody vote for a candidate who’s been arrested nine times?” asked one reporter.
“Well, I made a mistake 20 years ago. I had too much to drink,” said Bryce.
“You’ve said, many times, that you are a regular person. I don’t know any ‘regular person’ who’s been arrested nine times,” the reporter asked.
“Well, some of the arrests had to do with the initial charge,” said Bryce. “Since then I’ve run jobs. I’ve been given a lot of responsibility. And we’ve been able to run a really fantastic campaign.”
Bryce told the press he was more interested in “construction” than “demolition,” and left it at that.
“I knew this was a possibility, based on how the campaign has been going,” said Bryce before leaving the auditorium. “We’ve been honest with folks. We’ve explained everything. [People asked], what’s going to come up? And I said, well, I was late on child support for a while.”
Myers then walked into the same scrum, smiling, and defending her approach to Bryce by invoking Bryan Steil, the Republican attorney whom Ryan had endorsed to replace him.
“My opponent has made mistakes, and they’re going to be exploited by the Republicans,” she said. “If he can’t handle it with a 55-year-old English teacher, can you imagine what happens when he faces a corporate lawyer in the fall? We’ve got to bring up some things that might be unpleasant.”
Bryce’s campaign was happy with the debate, though — and with the finance report they would be putting out on Monday. From April to June, which mostly came after Ryan had announced his retirement, Bryce had raised $1.2 million from his growing donor network. Myers had raised about $350,000 — better than plenty of House candidates around the country, but not keeping pace.
“I’ve had a couple of people who endorsed Randy in the past who are rethinking their position,” she said. “They haven’t announced that yet. But they’ve approached me.”