At age 28, Ryan crushed opponents on way to victory
MADISON When 28-year-old Paul Ryan blew into Janesville in 1998 after nearly six years on Capitol Hill as a staffer, he shocked the political community by capturing the 1st Congressional District seat vacated by incumbent Mark Neumann.
Pundits and Republican insiders were surprised by Ryan’s performance, with one exception.
“The first time we met, I was running the U.S. Senate campaign committee, chaired by Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, and Paul was a staffer for Sen. Sam Brownback,” said Republican political strategist Brian Christianson, now a state and national political strategist who lives on Lake Koshkonong in rural Edgerton.
“I had a cubicle in Sen. D’Amato’s office, and Paul walked in and said he had heard that Neumann was giving up his seat to run against (U.S. Sen. Russ) Feingold, and he (Ryan) was considering running for the open seat. That was, I believe, in late 1997,” Christianson said.
“Then I got a call from Tommy Thompson promoting Paul as a congressional candidate,” Christianson said of Wisconsin’s governor at the time. “I got involved as the campaign strategist because I knew Paul had unique skills and was a new, exciting candidate.”
In early 1998, Christianson became part of a small campaign team consisting of Ryan’s brother Tobin; their mother, Betty; and Tobin’s wife, Oakleigh, that pulled off a remarkable congressional victory. That led Ryan to becoming a top House budget wonk and now a vice presidential candidate.
Ryan’s rise from a young congressional candidate to a vice presidential nominee had a lot of stops along the way, but it began on a shoestring budget with an office in downtown Janesville in the former Jupiter discount department store.
“First of all, I want to make it clear that I’m not taking credit for Paul’s first congressional victory,” Christianson said minutes after Ryan’s acceptance speech Saturday in Virginia. “He had the vision, the determination, the political skills and the incredible work ethic to pull off what most considered a surprise victory. I recognized his skills, and I was fortunate enough to work with him on that first campaign.”
Christianson, now an independent consultant and strategist, knew Ryan better than most political observers in 1998.
“We had both worked for Jack Kemp. I worked in Kemp’s congressional office and on his presidential campaign,” Christianson said. “Paul work for Kemp at Empower America. We were of like minds on so many issues.”
Ryan created a buzz in 1998, when he ran unopposed in the congressional primary. Early on, Ryan faced primary opposition from two credible Republican candidates—former state Sen. George Petak of Racine and Brian Morello, a wealthy Beloit businessman.
Petak was considered the presumptive Republican standard bearer after losing a recall election over funding for the Miller Park baseball stadium. He remained popular among Republicans in Racine, considered the district’s pivotal swing county.
Morello held a press conference in the Assembly Parlor of the Capitol in Madison announcing his candidacy. A few weeks later, he withdrew from the race and endorsed Ryan.
Petak also dropped out. While it’s unknown how much of an influence it was on Petak’s decision, Ryan had hired away Petak’s financial officer and chief fundraiser, Mary Stitt.
Christianson said Ryan’s ability to avoid a costly primary was more the result of one key piece of strategy and Ryan’s unrelenting campaigning.
“We decided early on to create a list of 100 opinion leaders, business leaders and heads of organizations,” Christianson said. “We gave him the list and stepped aside. He contacted every person on that list, sat down with them and convinced them that he was the GOP’s best bet to keep that seat on our side of the aisle.”
By the time Ryan had gone through the list, he had secured key endorsements and contributions that no other Republican candidate could match. He eliminated primary opposition, allowing him to delay major campaign expenditures until Labor Day.
“I would argue that the more defining factor in that 1998 campaign was a decision by the Democratic candidate, Lydia Spottswood, to come out early with her TV commercials trashing Paul,” Christianson said. “Paul had the discipline to hold off until Labor Day, when we introduced him with a TV ad about his family ties to the district. Meanwhile, Spottswood decided to introduce herself earlier with negative ads. It was a defining moment in the campaign.”
Ryan’s first TV ad, showing him in a cemetery where generations of Ryans are buried, initially concerned Christianson.
“I wasn’t sure we should introduce him in a cemetery, so we showed the ad to a focus group,” Christianson said. “It was a huge success. There were tears from women, especially, who were moved by his youthful image and family ties.”
Ryan, in what most observers considered an upset, defeated Spottswood with 57 percent of the vote. Two years earlier, she had come within a couple of percentage points of knocking off Neumann, the incumbent.
Christianson, however, did not consider Ryan’s first win an upset. He remembers sitting with former U.S. Sen. Bob Kasten and Steve King on election night.
“We were confident but just not sure about Racine County,” Christianson said. “We all agreed we needed to get 51 percent in the county, but the city of Racine would be much lower.
“The first results came in with us winning 56 percent of the vote in the city,” Christianson said. “I questioned that and insisted that those figures must have come in from the county, not the city. But those figures were, in fact, from the city, and based on that, we knew we had won.”
That initial 1998 race marked the last election that Ryan and his supporters had to wait into the night for returns. Since Spottswood, no Ryan opponent has received more than 37 percent of the vote. Democratic candidates since then were the late Jeff Thomas of Janesville, who was on the ballot four times, Marge Krupp and John Heckenlively.
By all traditional measurements, the 1st District is competitive. Fiercely independent, district voters provided a top-of-the-ticket win for President Obama while Ryan prevailed with 64 percent of the vote.
Democrat Les Aspin recorded easy wins, while former Gov. Tommy Thompson enjoyed comfortable margins on the same ballots.
The district remains competitive, but, like Aspin, Ryan has made it a safe district for himself. If the Romney-Ryan ticket prevails, an open-seat race in the district will again be a toss-up with the better candidate having an advantage over partisan numbers.