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The messy race to replace Paul Ryan

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan's (R-Wis.) tenure has been dominated by turbulence, gridlock and high government spending. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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Let’s start with this universally acknowledged truth among Wisconsin Republicans: Winning Paul Ryan’s congressional seat in November would be a lot easier if Paul Ryan were running for it.

But the GOP House speaker announced last week that he’s retiring after 19 years in Congress. And that means Wisconsin Democrats and Republicans, who already are dueling over gubernatorial and Senate races, have yet another competitive election battle. It's one that is as important symbolically as it is electorally. With just one race, Democrats have a chance to even out Wisconsin's congressional delegation to four Democrats and four Republicans — and do so by replacing one of the most powerful Republicans in Washington.

Wisconsin Republicans put Trump over the top. Now they're trying to prove it wasn't a fluke.

Whether that will actually happen is unclear. Republicans say the fallout from Ryan's departure is going as smoothly as it possibly could. At least half a dozen high-profile potential candidates have decided not to run. But that has cleared the field for an organized former Ryan staff member, University of Wisconsin Regent Bryan Steil, to become the likely nominee. Wisconsin Republicans who spoke to The Fix universally praised Steil.

“His time is now. He's ready,” longtime Wisconsin GOP activist Brandon Scholz said. “This guy has been on the phone nonstop” since Ryan announced his retirement.

Wisconsin Democrats interpret what's happening in a post-Ryan world differently. In contrast to Republicans, they have a serious candidate who has been in the race since June. Mustachioed iron worker Randy Bryce has already raised millions and received national attention with his pro-Affordable Care Act ads. He's arguably making a district that Donald Trump won by 10 points competitive. Wisconsin Democrats also feel the wind is at their backs after they won several state elections earlier this year they had no business winning.

“Yes,” said Wisconsin Democratic strategist Scot Ross when asked if he thought a Democrat would replace Ryan in Congress next year.

All this is theoretical until a mainstream Republican candidate actually gets in. Right now the only well-known declared Republican candidate to replace Ryan is Paul Nehlen, a controversial figure who is banned from Twitter for making racially insensitive remarks about Meghan Markle and who describes himself as “pro-White.” Nehlen lost to Ryan in 2016 by 68 points. Still, any attempts to cast himself as the pro-Trump candidate in the race got a boost when Trump gave him a shout-out in 2016.

Any day now, Steil is expected to announce his candidacy and almost immediately become the frontrunner. He has already locked down a powerful state GOP donor. The fact that Steil has never held public office before could help him separate himself from Ryan, should that become necessary.

There are a couple of second-tier Republican candidates who have jumped into the race, too, but if Steil is the only name-brand Republican who gets in, Democrats could be the ones with the competitive primary. Bryce is facing local school board member Cathy Myers, who has raised enough money to be taken seriously. Former congressman Peter Barca, who held this seat for two years in the 1990s and now a state representative, is seriously considering getting in the race.

Republicans see the potentially crowded Democratic primary as a sign of weakness for Bryce. Democrats interpret it as a sign of strength that many in their party see an opportunity to flip Ryan’s seat in November. House Democrats' campaign arm here in Washington has Bryce on its “red to blue” program as a promising candidate to flip a Republican seat.

But no one really knows what this electoral environment will hold for either side. Gov. Scott Walker (R) is warning of a blue wave in Wisconsin of tsunami proportions. In April, Democrats won a state Supreme Court seat, and in January they won a state Senate special election deep in rural GOP territory. Ryan's departure after those losses is another morale blow for Republicans.

Enthusiasm is on the Democratic side,” Ross said, “and the reason Democrats have performed poorly in past midterms is because their voters don't go to the polls. Democrats are running to the polls.”

But recent polls show that nationally, Democratic voters' enthusiasm gap over Republicans just narrowed as Trump's approval rating rises slightly. And the conservative candidate in this spring's statewide Supreme Court seat won Ryan's district by five points, comforting Republicans.

The election is seven months away. But both sides agree on one thing: The race to replace Ryan is going to be a race. There's just too much at stake in this one congressional seat for either side to back off.

“I think everybody has to consider the general election to be competitive,” Scholz said, “regardless of the caliber of candidates.”