WASHINGTON ― Ironworker Randy Bryce recently got to talking politics with a man he met at his job site.
They were working together on building a two-story parking lot for a Veterans Affairs hospital in Milwaukee, and it sounded like the guy had voted for President Donald Trump in the 2016 election.
Bryce, then-politics coordinator for his union, Iron Workers Local 8, is a committed progressive Democrat. And the man with whom he was conversing surprised him.
Rather than express enthusiasm for Trump, the fellow threw up his hands in frustration, wondering why there weren’t more ordinary workers in politics.
“He was like, ‘You know what? I’m sick of voting for all these people. Why don’t we have one of us? You know, one of us should run,’” Bryce told HuffPost at a Washington fundraiser in July, a Wisconsin accent audible in his vowels.
Bryce, a 52-year-old Army veteran, had good news. “I just started laughing. I said, ‘Where do you live?’” When he heard the answer, he said, “I’ll have one of my signs up in your front yard.”
It was May then. A month later, Bryce announced his 2018 candidacy for Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District ― a seat in the state’s southeastern corner that House Speaker Paul Ryan, 47, first won in 1998.
Although it is a long shot, Bryce’s bid has already attracted national attention. His campaign is an opportunity for Democrats to both regain working-class trust in the Rust Belt and land an unlikely knockout blow against the country’s second-most powerful Republican.
Bryce kicked off his campaign on June 18 with a two-and-a-half minute online video that instantly went viral. It opens with clips of Trump and Ryan discussing efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act ― Obamacare ― before introducing the older woman with multiple sclerosis who is Bryce’s mother. Bryce shares how his mom’s pain and his experience as an ironworker inspired him to fight for affordable health care and workers’ rights.
“If somebody falls behind, we’re that much stronger if we carry them with us,” Bryce says in a voiceover as images of him on the job and with his mother and 10-year-old son appear on screen. “That’s the way I was raised ― we look out for each other.”
He also directly challenges the man he hopes to topple, saying: “Let’s trade places. Paul Ryan, you can come work the iron, and I’ll go to D.C.”
Following the splashy debut, Bryce’s campaign exploded. Within 24 hours he had raised $100,000. He now has over $750,000 from more than 22,000 individual donors.
Bryce quickly picked up the endorsements of leading national progressive organizations, including the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the Working Families Party, Democracy for America, VoteVets, NARAL Pro-Choice America and the Transport Workers Union.
He also enjoys the backing of liberal Hollywood celebrities like Patton Oswalt and Nick Offerman. Both of them touted Bryce on Twitter, where the mustachioed ironworker ― @IronStache ― has become a progressive celebrity of his own. He began the campaign with some 6,000 followers, but now has over 133,000 ― a sizable audience to whom he regularly dispenses his homespun jabs at Trump and Ryan.
It is not hard to see why Democrats are excited about Bryce. After all, Ryan’s crusade to dramatically reducing the social safety net has earned him the ire of liberals. That the Beltway chattering class has dubbed him the GOP’s most reasonable “policy wonk” only heightens the contempt for Ryan among rank-and-file Democrats.
Bryce, by contrast, is a staunch backer of a single-payer health care system, in which the government provides insurance to everybody. Progressive activists have accelerated a push to get Democrats to run on single payer, or “Medicare for all,” in the wake of the collapse of Republican Obamacare repeal efforts.
“It’s actually going to cost less money in taxes” than the current system costs through other forms of payment, Bryce said. “It’s gonna be helpful for employers [in creating jobs] if they don’t have to worry about providing health care.
(Medicare, a form of single-payer insurance for seniors and people with disabilities, indeed has a lower rate of cost growth than private insurers.)
What’s more, Bryce is an almost too on-the-nose personification of the populist, union hard-hat worker who once made Wisconsin and other industrial Great Lakes’ states Democratic strongholds. A burly man of 6-feet-2-inches, he was sporting a blue button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the middle of his forearms at the recent fundraiser in Washington. He was one of the few men in the room not wearing a jacket.
Born in Milwaukee, Bryce lives in Caledonia, a suburb south of the city. Divorced, he shares custody of his son with his ex-wife. He enjoys taking the boy fishing on weekends.
For Democrats scrambling to win back at least some of the predominantly white, blue-collar workers who fled the party for Trump, “IronStache” Bryce is not a bad guy to have on your side.
A lot of Bryce’s peers “weren’t inspired” by Democrat Hillary Clinton’s message in the 2016 presidential race, he said. “They saw her as part of an establishment. Then they look at Donald Trump and he had a decent, working person’s message.”
“So when I see ’em now, I say, ‘Can you tell me one promise that he’s kept you, one thing he’s promised during his campaign that he’s kept and that’s the reason you’re voting for him?’” he said. “And they’ll tell me, ‘Honestly, I can’t.’ It’s a buyer’s remorse. People are waking up.”
“It’s a buyer’s remorse. People are waking up.”
At the same time, Bryce is not just progressive on economic issues. He supports the movement for black lives, abortion rights and universal gun background checks. Those stances allow him to circumvent the sticky intra-party debates over how much ideological deviance progressives should tolerate from red- and purple-state candidates on so-called cultural issues.
In fact, Bryce’s greatest strength may be his ability to articulate the progressive position on issues like immigration reform in a way that does not alienate skeptical working-class voters.
When speaking to friends who are angry about what they perceive as the unfairness of illegal immigration, Bryce appeals to their class solidarity.
“If there weren’t employers that would readily take advantage of workers that don’t have documentation in this country, there wouldn’t be jobs to come to,” Bryce said.
He supports comprehensive immigration reform that provides a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. “In the big picture, it’s about the whole thing being unbalanced in employers’ favor,” he said.
In some ways, Bryce’s candidacy is a bet that union-fueled populism remains alive and well in Wisconsin, despite the devastating losses that both the labor movement and the closely related Democratic Party have endured there in recent years.
Bryce is just as eager to tie Ryan to two-term Republican Gov. Scott Walker as he is to Trump. Walker famously stripped Wisconsin’s public-sector workers of their collective bargaining rights in 2011 following weeks of protests in the state capitol of Madison.
After withstanding a contentious 2012 recall effort and prevailing in his 2014 re-election bid, Walker turned his attention to neutering private-sector unions. In 2015, he made Wisconsin a right-to-work state, depriving all unions of the ability to require workers under contracts they negotiate to pay dues to the labor groups.
Anti-Walker fervor has become a part of Bryce’s identity. His cellphone ringtone is “Worker’s Song” by the Dropkick Murphys. The Massachusetts-based Celtic punk band’s dedication of the song “Take ’Em Down” to public-sector unions fighting Walker in 2011, and subsequent refusal to let a GOP congressional candidate use its music at his rallies, won Bryce’s heart.
“Aside from Bruce Springsteen, they are my favorite band ever since,” he said.
In the past, Ryan has backed the Davis-Bacon Act, requiring federal construction projects to honor the “prevailing” union wages in an area. It’s a provision critical for construction unions like the one to which Bryce belongs.
A spokesman for Ryan’s re-election campaign did not respond to a request to confirm the speaker’s position on Davis-Bacon or to address a host of criticisms leveled against him by Bryce.
For his part, Bryce stresses Ryan’s ties to Walker, the country’s most famous union-buster. Ryan called the peaceful 2011 protests against Walker “riots,” and compared it to the sometimes violent Arab Spring demonstrations in Egypt. (Politifact rated Ryan’s characterization “pants on fire.”)
Ryan is “right in line with the Scott Walker-extreme Republicans. They’re, you know, buddy-buddy,” Bryce said.
By any measure, the ironworker faces an uphill battle. Ryan, a deeply rooted native of Janesville (his great-grandfather started a construction business that’s still in the family), was re-elected in the district by 35 percentage points in 2016. Trump, meanwhile, won the district by 10 percentage points.
Ryan currently has $11.1 million in campaign cash on hand, and as speaker, he can undoubtedly raise much more.
Bryce maintains that Ryan simply has not faced a formidable enough opponent yet.
Of course, Bryce has yet to achieve success in electoral politics. He has lost three bids for lower office, including, most recently, a 2014 run for state senate.
But Bryce has never had a foil quite like Ryan. He plans to use Ryan’s role in the Obamacare repeal debacle as evidence of both the speaker’s cruelty and his incompetence.
“He would like you to think he’s this fantastic policy wonk,” Bryce said. “He’s speaker of the House. He’s got a Republican president, a Republican Senate, a conservative Supreme Court ― and what has he done? He’s done nothing.”