Congressional candidate Rob Zerban and his staff had decided to take a break from the grueling campaign season one Friday night earlier this month and check out The Campaign, the Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis comedy about a Congressional race in North Carolina.
Once the movie was over, Mr. Zerban and his aides started checking their BlackBerrys and found out their own Congressional campaign was about to get a lot more interesting.
That’s because the man Mr. Zerban had been running hard against for the past 16 months in Wisconsin’s First Congressional District, incumbent Paul Ryan, had been selected by Mitt Romney to be his running mate, and quickly announced that he would be running for both offices simultaneously.
“I was a little stunned,” said Mr. Zerban by phone today. “I couldn’t believe it. As much as I though this is what he wanted, I couldn’t believe they would go so far and nominate such an extreme ticket, where they would be highlighting what Republicans really stand for.”
Mr. Zerban paraphrased Joe Biden: “For a long time Republicans would be able to hide what they really stood for, but now with the Ryan budget and campaigning on it, everybody will see front and center what they actually want to do.”
Mr. Zerban is a two-term Kenosha County legislator and the former owner of a food-service business, and he has the chance not just to help make sure that Paul Ryan stays out of the White House, but that his career in politics ends for good.
After that fateful Friday evening, however, his campaign got a whole lot trickier. On the one hand, Mr. Ryan became one of the most famous faces in American politics. The chance to make a local boy into a job one heartbeat away from the presidency has turned Wisconsin from a Democratic-leaning state to one that is now a tossup. But on the other, there is no one in southeastern Wisconsin who won’t know about the Ryan Budget by election day, the Obama campaign has already turned his opponent into an epithet, Mr. Ryan will spend likely very little time campaigning in the district and Democrats around the country have been rallying to his side in the hopes of shuffling Mr. Ryan off the stage.
To wit, the campaign hauled in six figures worth of donations in the weekend of the veep pick. And, Mr. Zerban is using Mr. Romney’s selection of Mr. Ryan to double-down on the portrait he has already been painting of him–that of a Washington pol out of step with his constituents.
“It shows how Paul Ryan is really just interested in serving his own ambitions and not his constituents. People are starting to see that,” he said. “You don’t have to look any further than the Ryan budget, which kills Medicare, to see that this budget could only be written by an out-of-touch insider.”
In a phone interview today, Mr. Zerban slammed Mr. Ryan who “never did without,” but who wants to kick away the ladder for everyone else.
“He grew up privileged and then used the benefits of his father’s social security to get to college when his father passed away, unfortunately. He only came back to live in the district when he tried to run for Congress. He has been living off the American people ever since college and has never had a real job in private industry. Most people cannot relate to that kind of experience.”
Mr. Zerban noted that Mr. Ryan didn’t need his late father’s social security to go to college, since his grandfather started one of southeast Wisconsin’s largest construction companies, a company now run by Mr. Ryan’s cousin.
“It is disingenuous and hypocritical to benefit from a program like that and turn around when you have the power and the position to destroy a program like that. And that is what he calls for doing.”
The part of Wisconsin where Mr. Ryan hails from is not known as a Tea Party bastion. Janesville, Mr. Zerban said, was a strong union town that used to be home to a General Motors plant. Barack Obama carried the district with 52 percent of the vote, and even under the new district that resulted from the 2010 reapportionment, he would win still. Les Aspin, former secretary of defense under Bill Clinton, served the district for two decades. Handicappers rate it as R-2, so it is Republican-leaning, but not as hard-right as Mr. Ryan is.
Part of the reason though that Mr. Ryan has won by such large numbers is due to rather lame Democratic opposition. Four times Mr. Ryan’s opponent was Jeffrey C. Thomas, and four times in the 2000s Mr. Thomas lost. (Mr. Zerban says he was a family friend of the Ryans and seemed more concerned with winning the Democratic nomination.)
Mr. Zerban, meanwhile, has raised $1.3 million–more than all of Mr. Ryan’s Democratic challengers combined. And Mr. Ryan is paying attention, spending $2 million of his own money in a fall media buy.
“He would come to the district and he would talk a very moderate game, and then he would go off to D.C. and he would be very partisan, and nobody would ever call him out on this, on his extremism. ”
Mr. Zerban described himself as someone who benefits from the very kind of government programs that Mr. Ryan wants to eliminate. He grew up, he said, “very poor,” ate government cheese and free school lunch. He went to the Culinary Institute of America on Pell Grants and Stafford Loans.
“This race is deeply personal to me,” he said. “The programs I benefited from and that allowed me to get an education and live my version of the American Dream are the exact programs that Paul Ryan is trying to decimate with his budget. You see how he calls for ending Pell Grants and Stafford Loans, reducing funding for food stamp programs. These are the wrong priorities–killing Medicare, making it a voucher program. This is the wrong direction and, you know, President Obama is campaigning on this budget. A billion dollar campaign they are going to run. People in the First Congressional District are really going to see what Paul Ryan is about.”
In the meantime, Mr. Zerban hopes that Mr. Ryan returns to the district to debate. He is not, however, optimistic on that score.