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What began as another re-election race for U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan has become a hard-fought battle, especially between two Democratic candidates, for an open seat in a competitive district in southern Wisconsin.

The Aug. 14 primary will winnow the race to succeed Ryan, R-Janesville, who announced in April that he would not seek re-election in the 1st Congressional District.

The five candidates on the primary ballot had raised at least $50,000 for their campaigns by June 30.

The Democrats are: Randy Bryce, a Caledonia ironworker, U.S. Army veteran and union activist; and Cathy Myers, a Janesville School Board member and high school teacher.

The Republicans are: Paul Nehlen, a Delavan businessman denounced by Ryan and other GOP leaders for touting racist views and conspiracy theories; Lake Geneva businessman Nick Polce; and Bryan Steil, a Janesville businessman and UW System Regent.

Steil is easily pacing the Republican primary field in fundraising and endorsements — most notably Ryan’s.

Bryce entered the race in mid-2017 and quickly built a national following, buoyed by a widely lauded campaign launch video and a colorful social media presence via his Twitter handle, @IronStache. Supporters hope Bryce’s blue-collar bona fides appeal to white working-class voters who make up much of the district’s electorate — and who deserted Democrats nationwide in 2016.

All this helped Bryce land high-profile endorsements including from U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and U.S. Reps. Mark Pocan, D-Black Earth, and Gwen Moore, D-Milwaukee.

Bryce said he has built the broadest coalition in the 1st District to aid a national Democratic takeover of the House that would check President Donald Trump. Ryan’s no longer on the ballot, but Bryce said his supporters remain energized to elect someone who’ll take the district in a different direction.

“Although (Ryan’s) name is not going to be on the ballot, his ideas will,” Bryce said.

But Myers, a Janesville School Board member and high school teacher, has made the Democratic primary competitive.

“The word has spread that there’s an alternative in the race,” Myers said. “I’m a fighter, and I’m very willing to speak truth to power.”

As a single mother who raised two children as a child care provider and teacher, Myers said her life experiences also help her understand the struggles of working people.

Myers raised more than $1.1 million for her campaign through June 30. While not close to Bryce’s eye-popping $6 million fundraising total, it still was a strong showing this early in a U.S. House race. Myers also secured endorsements from women’s groups and local officials.

Few policy differences

Wisconsin’s 1st District runs along the Illinois border from eastern Rock County, including Janesville, through most of Walworth County and all of Racine and Kenosha counties. It also branches into the southern Milwaukee suburbs, including southern Milwaukee and southern Waukesha counties.

The district traditionally favors Republicans. It elected Ryan nine times and backed President Donald Trump in 2016 with 53 percent of the vote.

But some believe this congressional race could be in play, thanks to the lack of an incumbent and a favorable national environment for Democrats.

The race is one of 36 U.S. House contests rated as a “toss-up” by Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a leading prognosticator of U.S. campaigns.

On the issues, there’s plenty of common ground between Bryce and Myers.

Both have backgrounds in union activism. Both support a $15-an-hour minimum wage and tougher federal antitrust enforce- ment.

Myers is backing a universal basic income program; Bryce, a federal jobs guarantee, a plan that would provide federal funding to ensure everyone can work.

Both have emphasized health care access and affordability, championing a “Medicare-for-all” single-payer health care plan.

Both favor gun restrictions such as universal background checks and banning so-called assault weapons and accessories.

They differ on the question of whether to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, as Bryce proposes.

He said the agency, which enforces immigration laws inside the U.S., has become “a personal deportation force for Donald Trump.”

Myers said ICE has become a “rogue organization” but she favors reforming it and moving it from the Department of Homeland Security to the Department of Justice.

Myers says she has a stronger winning electoral history than Bryce, having been twice elected to the Janesville School Board. Bryce ran unsuccessfully for the state Legislature twice and Racine School Board once.

Bryce’s past an issue

Myers contends Bryce’s personal baggage could hamper his candidacy. In recent months, Myers and Republicans have touted a steady drip of revelations from Bryce’s past — most recently, the disclosure that he has been arrested nine times.

In the last decade, Bryce was twice arrested after acts of civil disobedience at political protests.

Older arrests include in 1998 for drunken driving and for driving without a license and failing to appear in court. CNN also reported that in 1991, Bryce was arrested for marijuana possession, property damage, trespassing and theft.

The theft and trespassing charges were later dropped.

Questions also have arisen about Bryce’s personal financial past. That includes his delinquent child support payments, which he eventually paid off last year, and his personal bankruptcy in 1999.

Earlier this month, Myers filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, alleging Bryce improperly used campaign funds for personal purposes.

The complaint alleges about $7,700 in campaign money was used to pay personal legal costs and a court judgment owed to an ex-girlfriend from 2004.

Bryce’s attorney, Jeremy Levinson, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel the payments in question were made with money from Bryce’s personal treasury, not from his campaign.

Myers said her problem with Bryce is less about his life choices than “a sense of entitlement that there seems to be.”

“The Republicans are going to attack. They’re going to have to lie about me in their attacks, but they will be able to tell the truth about him,” Myers said of Bryce.

Bryce, while noting the drunken driving arrest occurred about two decades ago, said it’s a mistake he regrets.

“I’ve been the type that when you do something wrong, you tell the truth,” Bryce said. “I learned from my mistake. ... It’s something that hasn’t happened since then, and it won’t happen again.”

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