With today’s news about Paul Ryan’s retirement from Congress, we might naturally turn to look at what comes next for Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District. (As Paul already pointed out, the guy who now becomes the GOP frontrunner in the district, Paul Nehlen, is a racist and a Trump devotee. He is also a white nationalist and a rabid anti-Semite. The Wisconsin state GOP has denounced him, but then again, #NeverTrump, amiright?)
Ryan was likely going to be running against steelworker, veteran, and outspoken progressive Randy Bryce in the general election, and so the question, now, is what the seat’s future looks like. Is it Bryce’s to lose? Can a human being as awful as Nehlen run and win in that district? Will the GOP manage to scramble to slot someone in to run against Nehlen before the primaries? And if Nehlen emerges from the primary victorious, will the state GOP rally behind him? (Again, #NeverTrump.)
I will say off the bat that I’m not from Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional and claim no authority on it. I grew up in Wisconsin’s 3rd district, which is very different than the 1st in terms of its physical size and pretty different in terms of its economic foundations (though both are pretty white), and I lived most of my adult voting years in Wisconsin’s 2nd district, which is largely comprised of Madison and its environs and, as such, is a different political beast than any of the state’s other ones. (Though it is also punishingly white.)
I do have a few thoughts on this, though, as someone who has spent a not-insignificant amount of time in the 1st district, and who lived there for about six months during my graduate school years.
First, the district is not, despite Paul Ryan’s very strong grip on it over the past twenty years, destined to always be won by Republicans. While Republicans have held it since the mid-1990s (including Ryan since 1999), for twenty-five straight years before that, it elected Democrats to represent it in Congress. As recently as 2008, Obama took the district in the presidential election (although Romney won it in 2012 and Trump won it in 2016).
There are, however, some realities that require reckoning.
- The district is now home to massive amounts of hardcore Republican dollars, to a vastly different degree (and, thanks to the devastation of campaign finance laws, with exponentially greater consequences) than it was just a couple of decades ago. The most notable well of funds is the cash reserves of billionaire Republican mega-donor Diane Hendricks, Wisconsin’s richest woman and she of Scott Walker “divide-and-conquer” fame. Hendricks is as dyed-in-the-wool a Republican supporter as you can get, and she has had no qualms about linking herself to Trump and his ilk. (She was named to Trump’s economic advisory team during the campaign.) So it is highly likely that there will be tons of money from Hendricks and her donor colleagues that come in on behalf of the Republican candidate, whoever that ends up being.
- Janesville, Racine, and Kenosha, the former industrial centers of the district, have been devastated by industrial job loss in recent decades. Amy Goldstein’s book Janesville: An American Story, published last year, offers very poignant windows into the crushing effects that this has had upon the lives of many workers. I can’t recommend it enough (especially as an alternative to JD Vance-ism).
- Those two points together have had dramatic impacts on the district’s political culture. One of the threads that Goldstein traces in her book is the evisceration of the district’s strong union culture over the course of basically a single generation. The area’s auto plants and affiliated industries were heavily unionized until relatively recently, which meant that there was a wide Democratic voting base that Republicans had to reckon with. The loss of huge numbers of factory jobs that could be union jobs — coupled with Scott Walker, Paul Ryan, and other state Republicans’ frontal assaults on organized labor in recent years — have gutted the once-strong political power of unions in the district and hamstrung Democrats.
- Wisconsin is also ground zero for the politics of division that have been resurgent in our political culture in recent years. This is what Walker thrives on, and we can see this playing out across the state — including in the 1st district. (Documenting the devolution of political civility during the Walker years — with neighbor resenting neighbor for the comparative quality of their job, whether that job is as a factory worker or a school teacher; with family members and former friends no longer speaking to one another — is another key strength of Goldstein’s book.) It thus seems plausible that whatever Republicans end up running for the seat will be particularly nasty and primed to scapegoat. It’s the modern Wisconsin Republican way.
- Speaking of Walker, he will be on the ballot for gubernatorial reelection this fall at the same time that the 1st District chooses its new representative. Walker is vulnerable (the RGA is dumping tons of money into protecting him), but his base has come out strong for him time and again. What effect this will have on the congressional race remains to be seen.
Be that as it may, Wisconsin has seen multiple elections already this year that suggest that a blue wave may be coming in November. A deep-red state Senate seat flipped blue in January. A deeply partisan Supreme Court race recently saw the more progressive candidate handily defeat her conservative opponent. In central Wisconsin, Kyle Frenette (who, incidentally, is Bon Iver’s manager) is running a progressive campaign against former reality star and two-bit Republican hack Sean Duffy to take the 7th Congressional District, and has already started making at least modest headway.
And the right kind of candidate can win in the first district. I don’t know if Randy Bryce will win, but he is probably as good a fit for the district as you can get while still being an outspoken progressive. Get to know him here. I’m donating.