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Bryce-Steil

Randy Bryce, left, and Bryan Steil

Even on his way out of Congress, U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan dominates the race to succeed him in Wisconsin’s 1st District between Racine ironworker Randy Bryce and Janesville attorney Bryan Steil.

After announcing his retirement earlier this year, Ryan, R-Janesville, endorsed his former staffer, Steil, helping clear the field for him in the GOP primary. It’s clear Ryan’s support will remain critical for Steil in the Nov. 6 general election.

Bryce, meanwhile, has used Ryan as his foil. Initially Bryce’s bid was about toppling Ryan. Now, Bryce says, it’s about beating someone who would continue Ryan’s policies.

Steil emphasized his background as an attorney for Charter Nex, a Milton packaging manufacturer, and as a University of Wisconsin System Regent since 2016. This is his first bid for elected office.

“Every day in a manufacturing setting, you’re solving problems,” Steil said. “Those kinds of private-sector skills that you learn day in and day out, working in a manufacturing setting, should be applied to Washington.”

Bryce said being an ironworker helps him understand the struggles of working people. A U.S. Army veteran, he become increasingly politically active during the 2011 Act 10 protests and twice ran unsuccessfully for state Legislature.

“I’m somebody that for the last 20 years has literally helped build this community with my hands,” Bryce said.

Bryce has criticized Steil for previously working as an attorney for Regal Beloit, an electric-motor manufacturer that outsourced jobs from a Wausau facility to Mexico.

Steil was an attorney for Regal Beloit from 2009 to 2017. Asked if Steil was involved in decisions to outsource jobs from Wisconsin, Steil spokesman Andrew Iverson said he was not.

“Bryan Steil was focused only on job creation and expansion during his time at Regal Beloit,” Iverson said.

Bryce has been arrested nine times, a fact noted by his Democratic primary opponent, Cathy Myers, and some Republicans.

Two of the arrests came after acts of civil disobedience at political protests. Older arrests in 1998 were 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.

Steil says he’s ‘underdog’

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 Milwaukee suburbs in the southern portions of Milwaukee and Waukesha counties.

The district favors Republicans. It elected Ryan nine times and backed President Donald Trump in 2016 by about 10 percentage points.

But some believe this year’s race could be competitive, since Ryan is leaving and the national environment is likely to favor Democrats. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee put the race on its “Red to Blue” list, giving the candidate organizational and fundraising support.

Bryce entered the race in mid-2017 before Ryan announced he would retire. Bryce quickly built a national following and fundraising base, buoyed by a viral campaign-launch video and a colorful social media presence via his Twitter handle, @IronStache. This helped Bryce land high-profile endorsements, most notably from U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., as well as from U.S. Reps. Mark Pocan, D-Black Earth, and Gwen Moore, D-Milwaukee.

Bryce’s formidable fundraising gave him a nearly 3-to-1 cash-on-hand advantage over Steil at the end of the last reporting period, July 25.

Steil cited Bryce’s support from Sanders and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to claim “out-of-state liberals are trying to buy this seat.”

“Financially, I’m the underdog. And so fair enough; I’m up to that task,” Steil said.

Bryce countered that it’s laughable anyone with Ryan’s backing is an underdog. Bryce also said he’s racking up more contributions from small donors.

“It’s obvious who’s being supported by working people and who’s benefiting from out-of-state, big-dollar contributors. It’s not me,” Bryce said.

Trade and tariffs

Steil offered conditional support for President Donald Trump’s controversial tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, which have sparked a global trade war. Some Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, say the tariffs are doing permanent damage to Wisconsin businesses — particularly manufacturers, a crucial industry in the 1st District.

“We’re bringing people back to the negotiating table to negotiate better trade agreements,” Steil said. “Bringing people back to the table to negotiate is a positive step.”

But Steil acknowledged Trump needs to “get as quickly as possible to the next chapter” — in which, in Steil’s view, the negotiations yield better trade deals for U.S. businesses.

Bryce said he doesn’t oppose tariffs altogether, but he opposes Trump’s policy because he says it lacks a “well-thought-out plan.”

“This is all about Donald Trump using it as a means of political theater. He’s not trying to solve problems,” Bryce said.

Bryce said he prefers to focus on unfair trade practices by Chinese companies and would garner more input from industries harmed by such practices.

Health care

Steil called the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, a “failed policy.” But if elected, he said he doesn’t see himself working to repeal it, as congressional Republicans tried and failed to do last year.

“I don’t think there’s the appetite in Congress to repeal the bill. So I’m focused on: How do we reduce the cost of health care and provide access and affordability?” Steil said.

To cover people with pre-existing conditions, Steil praised Wisconsin’s old high-risk coverage pool — the state’s pre-Obamacare solution for covering many people considered uninsurable — as a model. But he added that “I’m not suggesting going back to the previous model wholesale.”

Steil said he wants to offer legislation to expand access to health savings accounts and wants to expand access to high-deductible plans for healthy young people.

Bryce, a testicular cancer survivor, has made health care a top issue. He wants to defend Obamacare in the short term and, in the long term, implement a Medicare-for-all, single-payer plan.

Steil called that plan unrealistic and said it shows Bryce supports a government takeover of health care.

Asked how the plan would be paid for — one libertarian think tank estimated it would cost $32 trillion over a decade — Bryce said the cost of last year’s GOP tax overhaul would have been a good down payment. The measure is expected to cost the federal government about $1 trillion over a decade under one estimate from a nonpartisan congressional scorekeeper.

Bryce also emphasized the added cost of Medicare-for-all would replace premiums most people currently pay for employer-sponsored care.

Taxes

Steil contrasted his support for the GOP’s 2017 tax overhaul with Bryce’s opposition to it.

“I support tax reforms. He would raise taxes and take more money to Washington,” Steil said.

While the measure gives families and individuals tax cuts across-the-board, Bryce cited studies showing most of the benefits go to the wealthy and large corporations. He also cited media reports in 2017 that the GOP’s wealthy donors were threatening to cut its candidates off if they didn’t pass the tax overhaul.

“The tax scam, it’s not for working people — it’s for the donors Paul Ryan is going to be introducing (Steil) to,” Bryce said.

Immigration

Steil said he supports building a wall on the Mexico border as part of a push to secure it.

Once that’s done, he would support comprehensive immigration reform that includes aligning legal immigration with workforce needs and creating a path to legal status for so-called “Dreamers” who came or were brought to the United States illegally as children.

Bryce favors a no-strings-attached law creating a path to citizenship for people living in the U.S. illegally who were brought here as children, as well as a plan to give their parents legal status.

Steil criticized Bryce for pushing to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. The New York Times reported last month that of all the candidates on the DCCC “Red to Blue” list, only one — Bryce — has been a vocal supporter of abolishing ICE.

Bryce said the agency has become “militarized” and “Donald Trump’s personal deportation force.” But Bryce said he is “absolutely not” advocating open borders in seeking to do away with the agency.

“If you mention them in the immigrant community, people are terrified,” Bryce said. “What they’ve grown into is not what their mission initially was.”

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Mark Sommerhauser covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.