This just in: Why Rob Zerban has a chance to unseat Paul Ryan

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Dan Plutchak | August 26, 2014

It's a little more than two months until the 2014 general election, and Paul Ryan and Rob Zerban are ramping up their campaigns.

The winner of the Nov. 4 general election will be Wisconsin's 1st  Congressional District congressman for the following two years.

Since 1999, that's been Ryan, the Janesville Republican. But Zerban,  a Democrat who entered public life after selling his successful  corporate food service and catering company, plans on changing that.

He plans to build on his strong showing of two years ago and has proven to be a legitimate alternative.

Zerban can win if he can attract enough financial support to get his message out to rank-and-file Democrats and fence sitting independents, and then convince them to vote.

Last cycle, Zerban raised roughly $2 million. He'll need to top that in the next two months.

Ryan made news the week following his primary defeated of like-named Jeremy Ryan with the release of his new book, "The Way Forward."

In it, Ryan takes his party to task for intransigence on a variety of issues and urges Republicans to become a party of ideas.

Although national media has portrayed the book as a prelude to a possible presidential run in 2016, Ryan's book is more clearly a blueprint for his congressional re-election campaign. If 2012 is any  
guide, Republican primary voters want candidates that are moving to the right, not the center.

But in the 1st Congressional District, both Republicans and Democrats prefer their politics in moderation, and the lack of cooperation has frustrated most voters here.

Six years of Congressional stalemate is the issue Ryan's opponent hopes to exploit.

Zerban, who defeated Amar Kaleka in the primary, has been honing his alternate message for nearly two years, since he lost to Ryan, but only by 11 percent, Ryan's smallest margin of victory ever.

Zerban has traveled the 1st Congressional district holding town hall meetings, and recently hosted a listening session at Janesville's UAW hall.

Zerban answered questions and spelled out his alternative view of what should be going on in Washington.

Among his ideas:

• The United States can lead the world with renewable energy generation, which goes hand in hand with creating jobs and addressing global warming. "It's here, get used to it," he said about climate change. His goal is to create energy and economic security.

• He touts his experience in job creation during the years he owned his small business and noted that Ryan's experience has been in government. "For someone who vilifies the government, he sure has  
taken a lot of paychecks from it," Zerban said.

• Zerban advocates term limits -- six terms for Congress, two terms  for Senate

• He's critical of the recommendations in Ryan's "War on Poverty: 50 Years Later" report, calling it "parole officers for the poor."

• Says Obamacare doesn't go far enough, and advocates single-payer insurance, what he calls Medicare for All.

• To save Social Security, Zerban says the cap on high-income earners should be scrapped and if needed, a small adjustment to the contribution rate.

• Opposes President Obama on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free- trade deal, noting that the United States needs fair-trade deals instead of agreements that don't take into account other countries'  
lower labor and environmental standards.

• Opposed to the Keystone XL Pipeline

To pull off a win in November, Zerban will have to get his message out to rank-and-file Democrats and fence-sitting moderates.

"I don't care if you're a Democrat or a Republican, good ideas don't come with a party label," Zerban said. "I will work across the aisle for ones that make sense, that helps our people and helps our economy."

He'll also need help from outside money groups to boost his name recognition. Zerban said he expects to begin polling in September to fine-tune his message for his mailings and TV commercials.

He likely won't get any help from Ryan, who conspicuously never mentioned Zerban's name in his re-election ads from 2012.

Considering the lessons of Virginia's 7th Congressional District, where tea-party upstart David Brat defeated incumbent House Majority Leader Eric Cantor after Cantor regularly mentioned Brat in his advertising, expect the silent treatment from Ryan this time around.

It is likely however, that Zerban and Ryan will debate this time around.

Zerban said he ran into Ryan at the Racine County Fair goat-milking contest, a fair tradition that pits politician opponents against each other in a race to fill the mile bucket. (Zerban and Ryan took on  
their primary opponents.)

Zerban said he asked Ryan if he'd be willing to debate, and Ryan acknowledged that he would, noting that he was a bit busy two years  ago when he also ran for vice president.

Ryan, who notably didn't even carry his own Janesville ward two years ago, still will rely on the Republican strongholds in the middle of the district.

Zerban's plan is to boost his turnout in the Democratic strongholds on the edges of the district to secure the upset.

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