JANESVILLE, Wis. — Rob Zerban spent his morning on his hands and knees scrubbing a toilet in a homeless shelter. Half a country away, Paul Ryan stood under a spotlight in Virginia talking about why he should be the next vice president.
So it goes in Mr. Zerban’s long-shot bid to seize the House seat Mr. Ryan has held for 14 years. While the Republican vice presidential hopeful has jetted around the country touting Mitt Romney, the Kenosha Democrat has been getting his hands dirty in southern Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District.
Most challengers face uphill battles against established incumbents, but Mr. Zerban’s predicament is especially tough: He’s essentially battling a phantom.
Mr. Ryan scarcely has acknowledged he even faces a challenger back home. He’s made only a couple of campaign stops in the district since Mr. Romney tapped him as his running mate in August, and each time he’s focused on the White House. And Mr. Ryan’s absence hasn’t seemed to hurt him.
“You’ve got to give the guy credit,” Brandon Scholz, a Madison lobbyist who has worked on a number of GOP congressional campaigns, said of Mr. Zerban. “But he’s running against someone who at this point in the election is larger than life.”
With the district suffering economically, Mr. Zerban thought he could make political inroads by attacking Mr. Ryan’s plan for cutting entitlements and social spending. But with no one to engage, he’s been reduced to crying foul from the sidelines. He has demanded that Mr. Ryan debate him and gone around the district doing volunteer work to show he cares about its people.
“He’s avoiding coming back and debating the issues,” Mr. Zerban said. “And people aren’t happy. He has so much to answer for.”
Wisconsin’s 1st District covers the southeastern corner of the state, from Kenosha to Janesville, a city of 60,000 in the rolling prairies south of Madison, the state capital. Thousands of people in Janesville and Kenosha lost their jobs in 2009 and 2010 when General Motors and Chrysler closed plants in the cities and the unemployment rate in Racine, Kenosha and Janesville remains well above the statewide rate of 7.3 percent.
Mr. Ryan, 42, grew up in Janesville and still makes his home here. He hasn’t just held the district’s seat — he has owned it. The only race where he failed to earn at least 60 percent of the vote was his first in 1998, when he got 57 percent.
Mr. Zerban, a 44-year-old, silver-haired chef who ran a catering business and served on the Kenosha County Board, decided to take on Mr. Ryan while he was protesting Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s contentious law stripping public workers of nearly all their union bargaining ability last year.
“He’s been there for us,” said Margaret Delaney, 65, a neighborhood volunteer. “He wants to serve, however he can do it. He’s been here long enough. People know who he is.”
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