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Fame and Campaign Fortune Haven’t Saved ‘Iron Stache’ From a Heated Primary

Randy Bryce faces fellow Democrat Cathy Myers in Wisconsin’s 1st District on Tuesday

Democrat Randy Bryce faces Cathy Myers in Tuesday’s primary in Wisconsin’s 1st District. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Democrat Randy Bryce faces Cathy Myers in Tuesday’s primary in Wisconsin’s 1st District. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

When Randy Bryce came on to the political scene, he became a Democratic fundraising juggernaut. But the Wisconsin Democrat, who is known by his Twitter moniker “Iron Stache,” hasn’t locked down his primary race in the 1st District, despite a national profile and buckets of money being poured into his campaign.

Bryce faces a potentially competitive contest against Janesville school board member Cathy Myers in Tuesday’s primary. 

Myers jumped in the race shortly after Bryce launched the video that rocketed him to fame as the ironworker taking on Speaker Paul D. Ryan in the 1st District. Ryan’s decision to retire from Congress upended the race, placing new attention on Myers, according to her campaign. 

Ryan’s exit, along with reports of Bryce’s legal troubles that have surfaced and Myers’ own fundraising, has seen the Democratic primary develop into a heated race that at times has gotten nasty.

Some Democrats still expect Bryce to win, given his name recognition and his dominance on the airwaves. But Myers’ campaign is looking to capitalize on enthusiasm among female voters, who have propelled scores of Democratic women to primary victories across the country. 

A competitive race? 

Public polling in the race is hard to come by, but a July poll from Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Ryan, found Myers with a 1-point lead. A third of those surveyed were undecided.

A source with Myers’ campaign said the CLF poll was consistent with the campaign’s own numbers at the time. A source familiar with Bryce’s internal polling said his numbers showed him with the lead but declined to provide details.

Bryce has spent four times as much as Myers and had ten times the campaign cash heading into the final weeks of the race, according to Federal Election Commission documents.

He has so far raised more than $6.2 million, a haul that rivals some Senate candidates. That fundraising allowed Bryce to air television ads starting in March.

Bryce has also had some help from national Democratic groups such as End Citizens United, which helped raise $100,000 for the ironworker. And he was backed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Giffords, a gun safety group founded by former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband.

Still, Myers has been able to raise her own money, bringing in nearly $1.3 million so far. She went up on TV two weeks ago, and has also waged a robust text-messaging campaign and launched targeted digital ads.

Myers saw a fundraising boost in the first quarter of the year, before Ryan announced his retirement. The increased donations followed media reports from late 2017 about Bryce’s outstanding debt. Her campaign also raised roughly $40,000 in the 24 hours after the DCCC picked sides in the primary and added Bryce to its “Red to Blue” program for strong challengers.

Myers’ team also said she has support on the ground. She earned the endorsement of Forward Kenosha, a local Indivisible group, and has had some assistance from the National Organization for Women.

Going negative

Bryce and Myers are largely aligned on policy — both support “Medicare for All” legislation and a $15 minimum wage. But the race has taken a negative turn, starting with Myers, who cast Bryce’s legal troubles as disqualifying in the general election.

Myers’ campaign put out a digital ad featuring a single mother who said she was shocked to learn of Bryce’s failure to pay child support and of his multiple arrests, which include driving while intoxicated.

Bryce has apologized for his past mistakes, and his campaign suggested the revelations had not damaged his chances.

“Randy has been honest and apologetic about this issue,” Bryce campaign spokeswoman Julia Savel said. “I think voters really want to talk about things that affect them. They’re not concerned about a mistake from 20 years ago.”

But Bryce might be feeling some of the heat. On Friday, his campaign launched a digital ad calling out Myers for attacking other Democrats. The ad claimed Myers has attacked Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Wisconsin Democratic Rep. Gwen Moore.

“Shouldn’t Democrats focus on replacing Paul Ryan?” the ad text reads on screen. 

A source with Myers’ campaign noted that she was critical of Sanders for endorsing Bryce without talking to her, but said allegations that she has attacked Clinton and Moore were unfounded.

Myers’ emphasis on Bryce’s past is part of her case that she is the better candidate to flip the seat, arguing that Republicans could use her opponent’s history against him in the general election. Bryce also doesn’t have the best track record at winning elections — he previously lost two runs for state legislative office and a campaign for Racine School Board. 

But Bryce has argued he would be a better general election candidate than Myers because he best understands the struggles of working people. Democratic groups have stuck by him, and believe his profile and fundraising ability make him a strong candidate. One Democratic operative involved in House races also noted his profile would provide a stark contrast with Bryan Steil, the likely Republican nominee.

Steil is a lawyer and former Ryan aide who is a member of the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents. Steil has had less time to fundraise since Ryan only announced his retirement in April, and he ended the pre-primary period with $631,000.

But Republicans are confident of holding on to the 1st District in southeast Wisconsin, which Ryan held since he was first elected in 1998. President Donald Trump carried it by 10 points in 2016, his smallest winning margin of the five GOP-held House seats in the Badger State.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the 1st District general election Leans Republican.

Watch: Wisconsin Democratic Candidates Call Ryan Out on Gun Control

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