Some voters in the 1st Congressional District weren’t born the last time a Democrat won the seat.
They might have to wait a while longer.
Republican Rep. Paul Ryan is retiring after 20 years in office.
He leaves a legacy of strong Republican support and a district whose boundaries have shifted to exclude Democrats and include more Republicans.
But Democratic activists are enthusiastic, and money has poured in from donors who hope, in the words of 1st District candidate Randy Bryce, to “repeal and replace Ryan.”
“This is our best opportunity in 20 years,” said Cathy Myers, Bryce’s opponent in the Aug. 14 primary.
Tim Cullen, the retired Democratic state senator from Janesville, hasn’t endorsed either of the Democratic hopefuls.
Cullen said spring’s Supreme Court race might indicate things to come.
Rebecca Dallet, the liberal candidate, won in much of the state, including in some conservative areas.
But she didn’t win the 1st District.
“It tells you the uphill battle any Democrat would face,” Cullen said.
As presidential election maps show, the district Ryan won in 1998 has lost Democrat-leaning areas on its western side—notably Beloit—and shifted north to add parts of Waukesha County, a Republican stronghold.
The district was gerrymandered, said Cullen and Jay Heck of the nonpartisan good-government group Common Cause of Wisconsin. (Cullen is chairman of Common Cause’s advisory board.)
But the gerrymandering was not based on party preference. It was done to protect the incumbents, Cullen said.
In this case, they redrew boundaries after the 2000 census to the advantage of not only Ryan but also Rep. Tammy Baldwin in the neighboring 2nd District, they said.
Baldwin—now in the U.S. Senate—was elected the same year as Ryan, and she won re-election in 2000 in a squeaker, by only 2 percentage points.
The redrawing gave Beloit and other western parts of the district to Baldwin and took away some Republican areas north and west of Madison. The effect was to make the 2nd District more safely Democratic and the 1st District more safely Republican, Cullen said.
Baldwin was never seriously challenged again, Cullen said. Ryan, too, won easily for years.
Republican strategist and operative Brandon Scholz dismisses talk of gerrymandering.
“It’s really easy when one side is down and behind to blame things on the maps,” Scholz said. “... I don’t buy this drivel from those who want to blame everything wrong in this world on gerrymandering.”
Opponents resent Ryan’s success, Scholz said, and that success is not because of gerrymandering.
But Heck said it was an open secret: Reps. David Obey for the Democrats and Jim Sensenbrenner for the Republicans set the boundaries for decades.
“They would more or less draw the lines and submit them to the Legislature, and the Legislature would adopt them,” Heck said.
And when the Republicans took complete control of the lawmaking process in Madison in 2010, “they could do whatever they wanted,” Heck said.
Five of Wisconsin’s congressional districts were competitive in 1998, Heck said. Today, none is.
“The voters are the ones who lose,” Heck said. “Congress members are generally less responsive if they have a safe district.”
With his district safe, Ryan could afford to stop holding town hall meetings, Heck said. (Ryan says he gets constituents’ input in various other ways.)
One reform idea is to follow Iowa’s lead and allow an independent agency to draw the boundaries.
But Heck said Republican leaders guard their power jealously, refusing to even allow hearings on the idea.
“Everybody in Wisconsin knows the districts are gerrymandered, and no one’s under the illusion that the elections are fair here,” Heck said.
Scholz said the real reason the 1st District is so red is that Ryan made it that way.
Ryan built his image as the guy who was home on weekends and drove a Suburban, “and in Washington, he was doing the job, and he was very visible about it, and I think that defined voters’ expectations of what they wanted to see in Congress. He was a get-things-done kind of guy,” Scholz said.
Ryan was also key to the district’s rebuilding after auto plants in Janesville and Kenosha closed, Scholz said.
Scholz is among the party faithful who have followed Ryan’s lead and supported Janesville’s Bryan Steil for the 1st Congressional District seat.
Voters like what they see in Ryan, Scholz contends, and Steil can carry on the tradition.
Scholz figures Bryce will be Steil’s opponent in the general election, but Cullen said it’s a hard one to call.
Steil faces four others in the Republican primary, but observers say the primary race is Steil’s to lose.
A key will be who has the money, Cullen said.
Heck said that’s another thing that has changed in 20 years, and it means more and nastier campaign TV ads.
Outside groups, not the candidates themselves, don’t hesitate to call names and paint ugly pictures of their opponents, Heck said.
“It’s the influx of outside money that really has changed the tenor and tone of political campaigns, and I think in a congressional district like this, which is open and which the Democrats will feel really is their only opportunity, they will throw everything into it,” Heck said.
Cullen said the Democrats’ best hope this year is a “blue wave” that activists have theorized will hit Republicans like a tsunami.
Cullen’s first run for state Senate was in a district considered 58 percent Republican.
But it was 1974, the year Republican President Richard Nixon resigned with the Watergate scandal and the threat of impeachment hanging over him. A blue wave carried Cullen to victory.
“You can overcome pretty big gerrymanders—or reapportionments, whatever you want to call it—if you have a big enough wave,” Cullen said. “Whether that happens or not (this year) has yet to be told.”
On the other hand, an October surprise from President Donald Trump could undercut a blue wave, Cullen said.
Cullen noted Trump recently “found” $12 billion to help farmers hurt by his trade policies.
He could do something similar to shore up Republican fortunes as Nov. 6 approaches.