Rolling the Dice on Ironstache

For the most part, Democratic voters have done a good job weeding out candidates who might have difficulty winning a general election due to poor ideological fit or lack of credentials or problematic pasts or just plain kookiness. In Paul Ryan’s district last night, Democratic primary voters took a big chance on working class hero and ironworker Randy ‘Ironstache’ Bryce.

His opponent, teacher and Janesville School Board member Cathy Myers, argued throughout the campaign that Bryce would be unelectable. Near the end, she ran an attack ad that summarized her case:

Bryce became a viral video star, and a magnet for national small-donor progressive cash, after his dramatic launch video that played up his union laborer bona fides. Myers is now trying to sound an alarm, arguing that his checkered past will make him unelectable come November.

But Myers’ spot “Contrast” this isn’t your usual attack ad, with sinister music and an ominous-sounding narrator. Instead, it nestles a vicious attack on Bryce around an uplifting ode to single motherhood.

The ad is narrated by a single mom with purple hair, who begins by saying, “being a single mom is definitely a lot to juggle, but at the end of the day, seeing my kids succeed is very rewarding.”

She shares her initial interest in Bryce, “This election is really important to me. When I heard about Randy Bryce, I wanted to know more.”

The ad offers a quick sample of the effusive national TV coverage Bryce has received, before shifting tone. “But what I learned shocked me,” says the mom.

The mom delivers the first blow. “At the same time Randy Bryce was buying Twitter followers and giving over $8000 to his own political campaigns, he was failing to pay thousands of dollars in child support and old debts.”

The next comes from TV news reports that dug up his arrest record, which includes an arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol in 1998. One news report includes Bryce’s apology, as well as the first words we hear from Myers: “The problem with that is that it’s going to be exploited by the Republicans.”

The single mom returns to say: “My family cannot afford to lose this election, and I can’t vote for Randy when there’s a candidate like Cathy Myers.”

Ms. Myers was correct about the Republicans exploiting his history of arrests, including one for driving under the influence of alcohol.

Republicans are out with a brutal radio ad targeting Wisconsin congressional candidate Randy Bryce (D):

DISPATCH: “Squad Car 5-8-0. We have reports of a swerving vehicle. Do you read?”

POLICE OFFICER: “This is Squad Car 5-8-0. We’re on the scene. We have a drunk driver in custody.”

DISPATCH: “Can we get an ID on him?”

POLICE OFFICER: “Yeah, his name is Randy Bryce. Repeat offender.”

NARRATOR: “Randy Bryce has been arrested nine times. Driving while under the influence. Driving on a suspended license. Drug possession. Property Damage. Theft. Randy Bryce has been arrested nine times.”

NARRATOR: “Nine arrests? Randy Bryce has no business making the laws. He’s spent his life breaking the law.”

I think that’s a pretty devastating advertisement and no one can say it wasn’t predicted. Not that fairness has anything to do with it, but the nine arrests sound significantly worse when lacking any context. Most of the arrests stem from Bryce failing to act responsibly following the initial drunk driving arrest in 1998. He failed to appear in court and a warrant was issued. Then he was nailed three times for driving under a suspended license and failed to turn up in court again after one of those. In total, six of his arrests stemmed from his DUI. One arrest occurred all the way back in 1991, on Bryce’s 27th birthday, when he got popped for “marijuana possession, property damage, trespassing, and theft.” The more serious of those charges were dropped. The only time Bryce has been arrested in the last fifteen years is for protesting Speaker Paul Ryan and Senator Ron Johnson.

The Republicans have every right to question whether Randy Bryce has any business making laws after getting arrested nine times, but it’s a significant distortion to say he’s “spent his life breaking the law.” Democratic voters had the opportunity to choose someone else and avoid the annoyance and difficulty of trying to contextualize Randy Bryce’s criminal record. They can make the points I made above and suggest that these arrests weren’t violent in nature and occurred a long time ago, but that doesn’t mean they can overcome the Republican attacks.

And they’ll attack more than his arrests:

While Bryce has raised millions from a viral video his campaign has been dogged by stories of past actions and legal troubles. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, in 2002, Bryce borrowed and failed to pay back $1,776 from his then-girlfriend for a car. A court ordered a lien against Bryce in 2004, but only once he was a candidate was the debt paid, by Democratic Party lawyer Jeremy Levinson. Then, in 2015 according to the New York Times and Bryce’s own admissions, he paid for fake Twitter followers while, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel failing to pay his court-ordered child support. Again this debt to his ex-wife was paid upon entering the race for Congress.

Unless the Republicans completely fail at their job (and they don’t appear to be doing so), Bryce will spend the entire campaign on his heels trying to explain why he should represent his community in Congress after compiling this less-than-exemplary record.

And that’s a shame because yesterday (with 98% of precincts reporting) there were more Democrats at the polls (59,379) in Paul Ryan’s district than Republicans (58,549). That suggests that this is a winnable seat for a Democrat who isn’t beset from the start with a difficult history that requires rationalization.

It’s notable that Bryce’s opponent, Bryan Steil, doesn’t mention his work as a Paul Ryan staffer on his campaign website. Apparently, that wasn’t considered an asset in a Republican primary in Paul Ryan’s district. That’s an indication of how vulnerable this seat has become. I’m not sure that things have deteriorated so badly for Ryan at home that Bryce can successfully attack Steil for having worked for Ryan, but it’s probably worth a try. Certainly he will make class an issue. When Steil announced his candidacy, Bryce’s spokeswoman responded, “It’s hard to think of anyone less in touch with the struggles facing working families than a third-generation corporate attorney from a politically connected family.”

Bryce has an inspirational story to tell, including military service, a successful battle against testicular cancer that bankrupted him, and his resurrection through the dignity and opportunity of a union job. In some ways, his past difficulties can be recast as part of this phoenix-like recovery, and his scuffles with the law, health problems and his past financial hardship give him a certain working class authenticity that contrasts well with his opponent’s life of privilege.

That’s going to have to be the strategy, anyway, but things would probably have been easier for the Democrats if they’d gone with a teacher and school board member with a clean record and a history of local leadership.

Congress could use more people from both of these walks of life, and I’m certain they are not suffering from a deficit of former staffers. The Democrats of Janesville rolled the dice on Ironstache. Now we’ll see if their faith in Bryce will be rewarded.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.