JANESVILLE, Wis. — Paul Ryan is busy preparing to face off next month with Vice President Joe Biden, lugging around briefing books, cramming on foreign policy, and trying to mesh his views with those of his new running mate, Mitt Romney.
But here at home, in the House district Ryan has represented for 14 years, he is facing a different threat: Rob Zerban, a silver-haired former county official.
Ryan is running for reelection to Congress —
On Wednesday, Ryan is launching a $2 million ad campaign for his congressional reelection, spending money to retain his current job even as he seeks to upgrade to a new one.
Ryan’s local opposition is tougher this year than any since he first won the congressional seat in 1998. Still, Zerban is the clear underdog. He is desperate to get Ryan to agree to a debate sponsored by a local website and radio station.
So far, Ryan hasn’t managed to work it into his schedule, and may simply submit responses in writing.
“I feel he should be back in the district to debate me,” Zerban, a Democrat, said between sips of beer at an Irish pub in Madison, after a day so long that he apologized at the interview’s conclusion for not being more energetic. “I mean, if he’s going to be running for both offices, then he certainly has a duty and obligation to the people of the First Congressional District to fulfill the obligations of this race as well — and I think that’s debating me.”
On Election Day, voters in the district will have the unusual opportunity to vote for — or against — Ryan twice on the same ballot.
In running a dual campaign, Ryan is hedging his bets, as many candidates before him have done. In this case, if he and Romney fail to win the White House, he can, with the defeat of Zerban, remain a strong conservative voice in Congress.
If they weren’t political rivals now, Ryan might be able to ask Joe Biden for a little advice. Biden in 2008 ran to become vice president and to retain his US Senate seat in Delaware. Because he won the former job, he had to give up the latter.
Ryan had to file paperwork by June 1 to appear on the congressional ballot, and the ballots were finalized the next week. It wasn’t until Aug. 11 that he was tapped as the GOP vice presidential nominee, too late to remove his name from the ballot (unless, state election officials told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, he dies before the final ballots are printed about 50 days before the election).
Ryan’s two-course campaign is highlighted throughout his hometown. On some lawns, voters have written “vice president” onto his green congressional campaign signs. In the conference room of Ryan’s campaign headquarters here, there are two maps: one of his congressional district, the other of the United States.
“He can walk and chew gum. He does invest — and has invested — so much in the district,” said Kevin Seifert, his congressional campaign manager. “Voters have longer memories than 80 days. They’ll remember the 14 years of representation, not just the few days he won’t be able to be here.”
Seifert said the campaign will run TV and radio ads, and Ryan will spend time in the state — largely because it is a battleground state that the Romney campaign is hoping to put in play. On Wednesday, for example, Ryan is holding a town hall meeting in De Pere, Wis., which is north of his congressional district but could help mobilize voters for the Romney campaign.
The television ads that Ryan will begin running on Wednesday could be an indication that he is concerned about preserving his current seat — or worried about his reputation back home — but it is also a way for Ryan to bolster his name in a key state for the Romney-Ryan ticket.
As to whether Ryan has any plans to debate Zerban, Seifert says, “It’s unclear what’s going to happen. It just depends on what his responsibilities are and what the dates are.”
The local Patch.com website, partnering with WGTD radio station, is planning a debate at a local community college on Oct. 25. On Tuesday the hosts issued invitations to both campaigns. Zerban’s campaign has said he would participate, even if it meant rearranging the schedule. Ryan’s campaign hasn’t confirmed his attendance.
In earlier discussions with the Ryan campaign, debate organizers had discussed holding the debate on Oct. 11. But that day, it turns out, will be when Ryan is debating Biden in Danville, Ky.
“We’re just hoping both candidates show up,” said Heather Asiyanbi, editor of Mount Pleasant-Sturtevant Patch. She said it was still unclear what would happen if Ryan doesn’t agree to attend the debate.
Zerban, a onetime caterer who served two terms on the Kenosha County Board of Supervisors and was recruited to run by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, is focused on many of the same issues locally as Democrats are nationally. He brands Ryan “an out-of-touch political insider,” his politics “disingenuous,” and his budget plans “radical.”
Zerban is also trying to personalize some of Ryan’s proposals for deep budget cuts and dramatic changes to programs like Medicare.
“This race is deeply personal to me,” he said. “I grew up in a household that was a single-parent home. My mom struggled to keep the roof over our heads. I benefited from eating surplus commodity” food that was offered needy families, “government cheese if you will. I got free lunch and milk at school. I was able to get an education because I qualified for Pell grants and Stafford loans.”
“These are all programs that Paul Ryan and the GOP are trying to gut, get rid of,” he added.
Since his first race in 1998, Ryan hasn’t had a significant challenge. He was so friendly with Jeffrey Thomas, who challenged him four times, that they would reportedly carpool together to campaign events. During his 2010 race, Ryan spent more than $1.4 million, compared with less than $10,000 by his Democratic opponent, John Heckenlively.
Zerban said his contributions have increased from national donors since Ryan was chosen, although he has trailed badly in the money race. The most recent federal reports show that as of July 25 Zerban had about $525,000 compared with Ryan’s $5.4 million.
Zerban — who had been running against a Republican policy wonk but is now running against a potential vice president — doesn’t seem quite sure what to make of it.
“There are more camera crews running around,” Zerban said. “It’s funny — I had a dream that Channel 12 was looking for me the other day, and I was hiding from them.”
“That’s sad,” said his communications director, Karthik Ganapathy.
“I know,” Zerban said. “I’ve never had a dream like that before.”
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.