House Speaker Paul D. Ryan could be facing his toughest re-election race in years after Democrat Randy Bryce reported a huge fundraising haul Monday, collecting more than $2 million so far this year in his bid to unseat the chamber’s top Republican.
Mr. Bryce, who has twice failed to win a state legislative seat and also lost a school board race, seems to have built some enthusiasm in the race for the district in southeast Wisconsin.
Aided by national liberal groups, his campaign reported a $2.1 million haul for the first fundraising quarter of the year, and $4.75 million total since the start of 2017. He had $2.3 million on hand.
Ousting a sitting House speaker would be a major coup for Democrats, and Mr. Ryan presents a juicy target for liberal activists after he pushed through President Trump’s tax cut bill last year and authored GOP budgets that proposed cutting entitlements such as Medicare and Medicaid.
Mr. Ryan’s team remains unperturbed about his prospects.
“Whoever Paul Ryan faces this fall, we’re confident that just like the previous nine election cycles, he’ll be re-elected comfortably because he has kept his promise to fight for his constituents in the First District and worked hard to improve their lives,” said Jeremy Adler, Mr. Ryan’s campaign spokesperson.
Mr. Ryan is also known as an impressive fundraiser, both for his own campaign and House Republicans overall. He raised more than $10 million least year and had $9 million on hand as 2018 began.
He won his 2016 race by 35 points and Cook Political Report still rates this year’s race as “solid Republican.” But University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato moved the seat from “safe Republican” to “likely Republican.”
Sabato’s Crystal Ball, his rolling analysis of elections, says Mr. Ryan has been “untouchable” during his races, but said the district can be competitive. It went for President Obama in 2008, but swung to the GOP — with Mr. Ryan on the ticket as the vice presidential nominee — in 2012, and went for President Trump by 10 points in 2016.
Mr. Ryan’s opponent in 2016, Democrat Ryan Solen, lagged far behind in fundraising, so Mr. Bryce’s campaign haul suggests more party effort on the race this time.
Mr. Bryce says he’s more in tune with what constituents are looking for than a Washington insider like Mr. Ryan.
“He spends all his time with lobbyists and billionaires,” Mr. Bryce told Bloomberg in an interview last week.
Though he is pitching himself as a populist Democrat he carries liberal positions into the race on social issues. He is pro-choice, supports a ban on some semiautomatic rifles, and has been a vocal critic of the Republican tax plan.
Before Mr. Bryce can take on Mr. Ryan he must win the Democratic primary, where he faces Cathy Myers, a member of the school board in Janesville who has trailed Mr. Bryce in fundraising since both entered the race.
Ms. Myers’ campaign acknowledges the fundraising deficit, but says that most of Mr. Bryce’s money is from out-of-state donors enticed to pony up by the likes of national liberal activist groups such as Democracy for America and Working Families Party.
“Randy Bryce’s fundraising haul is due to the anti-Paul Ryan sentiment we’ve seen nationwide,” said Dennis Hughes, a spokesman for Ms. Meyers’ campaign. “He relies on out-of-state donors and celebrities that don’t know there is a more viable candidate running who has more local support.”
National Democrats have elevated the race against Mr. Ryan, with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee putting the seat on their list of targeted districts late last year.
“I believe that either Mr. Bryce or Ms. Myers, whoever comes through the Democratic primary in August, will mount a very serious challenge to Paul Ryan because his agenda on health care, taxation and spending is incredibly unpopular and his approval rating in the district has notably dropped,” said Melanie Conklin, spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Democratic Party.
Republicans have controlled the district since 1995 with Mr. Ryan representing the area since 1999.
The last sitting House speaker to be defeated for re-election was Rep. Tom Foley, Washington Democrat, in 1994. But in 2014, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, lost his primary.