MADISON, Wis. — Democrats already enthusiastic about hard-hat-wearing Randy Bryce's challenge of Republican Paul Ryan got a gust of optimism Thursday with the House speaker's decision against seeking re-election.
Bryce's "Iron Stache" persona had earned the 53-year-old Army veteran and ironworker the support of national Democratic donors after a cheeky campaign launch in which he offered to trade jobs with Ryan. But Ryan's retirement announcement turns an uphill challenge in a narrowly Republican district into a more credible Democratic target.
"It's still a Republican-leaning district. But maybe this year that's not good enough," Wisconsin-based Democratic pollster Paul Maslin said.
With Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and other Republicans scrambling to assess a possible run, Bryce pounced. "We just repealed Paul Ryan," he tweeted.
Republicans, including Ryan's former campaign team, were quick to say they would forcefully defend the seat. But Democrats saw Ryan's exit as an opportunity to pick up a seat.
"We pushed him out," Bryce said in an interview. "The repeal part is done now and we have to work just as hard now with the replace part."
Ryan campaign leader Kevin Seifert called the claim that Bryce forced Ryan out was "laughable," and said Ryan would have won easily. He pointed to a March poll by the Marquette University Law School that showed Ryan's favorability was 55-36 for the region that includes his congressional district.
First elected in 1998, Ryan has never won re-election by fewer than 55 points.
But he also never faced a challenger as well-funded and organized as Bryce.
Bryce had already been named to the national House Democrats' list of top challengers in Republican-held districts. The profile boost, which comes with fundraising and organizational help, was an early sign of the party's optimism about toppling Ryan and the GOP majority.
But the open seat now gives Bryce, whose roughly $5 million raised paled compared to Ryan's more than $11 million, a sudden fundraising advantage in what was previously a Democratic-leaning district in the heart of white, working-class America.
Once home to U.S. automaker plants in Kenosha and Janesville, the area from south-central Wisconsin to Milwaukee's blue-collar south side was represented by Democrat Les Aspin for more than 20 years before plant closures chipped away at its union-Democrat profile.
"This district looks like Randy Bryce," said former Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate.
Still, President Donald Trump won the district by more than 10 percentage points while winning statewide by less than a point. In last week's election for an open Wisconsin Supreme Court seat, conservative candidate Michael Screnock won the district by over 5 points while losing statewide by 12. The last time it went Democratic in a presidential election was when Barack Obama carried it by 3 points in 2008 before redistricting made it a little more Republican.
Democrats must net 24 Republican-held seats to regain the House majority. They're starting by targeting 25 GOP-held seats where Democrat Clinton received more votes than Republican President Donald Trump in 2016.
But Ryan's seat is among almost 100 more Republican-held districts that have gained new attention since Democrat Conor Lamb won a special House election in western Pennsylvania last month, in a district Trump won by almost 20 points. Lamb won in part by hammering Ryan and the GOP majority as a threat to Social Security and Medicare.
Bryce, endorsed by liberals like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and NARAL Pro-Choice America, faces a Democratic primary challenge from Janesville teacher Cathy Myers.
Myers said Ryan's decision to drop out shouldn't change the approach for her or Bryce, saying any replacement for Ryan "will just be Ryan-lite."
Besides Vos, who has championed Republican Gov. Scott Walker's agenda, others mentioned as potential GOP candidates include former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, state Rep. Tyler August; state Sen. David Craig; state Rep. Samantha Kerkman; and longtime Ryan friend Bryan Steil, an attorney and University of Wisconsin Board of Regents member.
"Hey, it's the year of the woman," Kerkman said. "There's a lot to think about."
Steil said he was giving it "serious consideration."
None of the others addressed the speculation.
Brandon Scholz, a former Wisconsin Republican Party executive director and longtime GOP strategist, said most would wait for Vos to decide first.
The only declared Republicans so far are Paul Nehlen, who was banned from Twitter earlier this year for a series of posts criticized as racist or anti-Semitic, and Nick Polce, an Army veteran who also co-owns a security consulting firm.
While Bryce, who tweets under the @IronStache moniker, has raised plenty of money and attention, he also brings some baggage that Republicans are certain to exploit.
He paid off at least a couple of old debts shortly after announcing his candidacy — one to a former girlfriend who had loaned him nearly $2,000 nearly two decades ago. He also cleared a 2015 lien on his property last August by paying off $1,257 in back child support.
Bryce said he's been open about the fact that he has sometimes struggled financially.
The real challenge to winning, Bryce said, will be sustaining the Democratic enthusiasm into the fall.
"We need to move this resistance to the attack on working people to the ballot box," he said.