It’s a hot July evening in downtown Manhattan, and Von, a dimly lit cocktail bar, is packed. Three executives from Uber drink gin and tonics at the bar. A volunteer checks people in after a day spent working at a New York publishing house. Downstairs, the basement is a sea of Brooklyn hipsters, national political operatives, and crusty old labor leftists. Also, Sex and the City star Cynthia Nixon is here.
All of them have come out for Randy Bryce, a Wisconsin ironworker who is running against House Speaker Paul Ryan in 2018. Bryce is one of a record number of Democrats who have declared their candidacy this year in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, more than 200 of whom had reported raising at least $5,000 by the end of June, double the previous high-water mark set in 2003. Among them is a law professor and expert on economic policy aiming to be the second Korean American in Congress; the former head of the NAACP, who is running to be Maryland’s first black governor; a retired fighter pilot who as a child wrote a letter to her senator urging him to push the U.S. Navy to allow women to fly planes in combat; a former Obama administration official of Mexican and Palestinian descent running in California; and a transgender chemist and former Air Force pilot running in a swing district in Texas.
These candidates and hundreds of others like them are pushing for progressive policies like a higher minimum wage, increased access to health care, and more spending on education and the environment. But none of them have received a fraction of the attention that Bryce has enjoyed since June 18, when his campaign released an ad on YouTube that turned him into a national Democratic Party star. Wearing a literal blue-collar shirt and hard hat, with a tool belt slung over his shoulder, Bryce is shown welding, pushing steel joist girders into place, and leaning on a work truck. “Let’s trade places,” Bryce declares at the end of the spot, as construction dust and dirt rises behind him. “Paul Ryan, you can come out and work the iron, and I’ll go to D.C.”
The ad generated $430,000 in donations and earned Bryce a mountain of press: multiple appearances on CNN and MSNBC, as well as warm profiles in GQ, Esquire, People, the Guardian, the Daily Beast, and the American Prospect. Whoopi Goldberg even gave him a shoutout on The View. Bryce’s campaign estimates the video has now received 24 million views on YouTube, social media, and television—unheard of for someone not running for national office. Bryce has already received more than 31,000 contributions, roughly equivalent to what Rob Zerban, Ryan’s challenger in 2012 and 2014, received in the entirety of each of his campaigns. Fundraising numbers, this early in the cycle, can be a blunt instrument, since some candidates self-fund or come with a rich network of donors, but Bryce’s $430,000 puts him in the top 10 challengers for 2018, despite the fact that he only started fundraising four weeks before the Federal Election Commission’s filing deadline.
Bryce has achieved the rarefied kind of political celebrity that enables him to call actual celebrities, like Cynthia Nixon, and invite them to his fundraisers, and that permits him to raise money in the Bel Air home of Chelsea Handler, as he’s scheduled to do next month. So, how did the Wisconsin ironworker become the Democratic it candidate of the moment? And what does his popularity tell us about the state of the party, desperately fumbling for a way forward against a political map that reveals large swaths of the country have rejected it?
Bryce is a two-time failed candidate for local office—one of those races was a Democratic primary—and the ad that catapulted him to fame is remarkably devoid of substance. “I decided to run for office because not everybody is seated at the table, and it’s time to make a bigger table,” Bryce says at one point. When I met him the day before his fundraiser at a Brooklyn diner, I asked the man in the ad why he was taking time off from his job on the iron to take on Ryan. “I am a working-class guy,” Bryce answered, as if that was all the explanation necessary. “That is what I do for a living.”
Bryce’s political vision borrows heavily from his experience on the job. He said he would serve his constituents in much the same way a foreman keeps conditions safe for workers on a job site, or the way “a shop steward makes sure people are looked after.” His time looking out for his union brothers, he said, prepared him to look after the needs of the people of Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District.
The working class, according to Bryce, should be the alpha and omega of the Democratic Party platform. Everything else is a distraction.
“Personally, I don’t think anybody ever could talk enough about it,” he said. “So even if they talk about it 99 percent of the time, I want 100 percent. Let’s talk about working people’s issues because we are the ones that are responsible for building and maintaining everything we have.”
Bryce didn’t originally come to the attention of Wisconsin Democrats because of his job as an ironworker. After Gov. Scott Walker rammed through a series of anti-union bills in 2011, Bryce became politically active, testifying before the legislature and becoming a regular at rallies and on picket lines. “Here’s a guy that comes from the heartland of Wisconsin, has got that great Wisconsin accent, is the real deal as a laborer, a worker who packs his lunch every day,” explained Marina Dimitrijevic, the head of the Wisconsin Working Families Party, an umbrella group of unions and progressive groups that have backed Bryce enthusiastically.
It was the WFP that convinced Bryce to run against Paul Ryan. “You are the kind of person we want,” they told him, as Bryce recounted to the crowd that night at the Manhattan bar. “We want a working person.”
Bryce enters the national political arena just as a debate is roiling the Democratic Party over whether the Democrats should stake their future on the “Obama coalition” of black Americans, Hispanics, and culturally liberal millennials, or if they should instead strive to reclaim the white working-class vote that defected to Donald Trump. It’s a choice between being the party of the ascendant, or the party of the despondent, as the Atlantic’s Franklin Foer put it in one memorable essay. In a much-discussed New York Times op-ed and a subsequent book, Columbia professor Mark Lilla argued that the “age of identity liberalism” should be brought to an end, since a “fixation on diversity” had led well-meaning liberals to remain indifferent to the challenges of the white working class. This demographic cohort, steeped in a mythology of honest work done far from elite coastal bubbles, is central to the Democratic Party’s conception of itself, even as the people who belong to it are, according to pollsters, increasingly turned off by the party’s focus on racial and sexual civil rights.
That so much excitement—in the form of money, YouTube views, cable appearances, and celebrity endorsements—has centered around a guy whose only real political achievement is starring in a well-shot ad shows the debate about the future of the party might be tipping to a particular side. The Democratic grass roots aren’t writing small-dollar checks to black, Hispanic, Asian, Arab, and gay candidates in the same way they are to Randy Bryce.
It takes only the slightest amount of political sophistication to see how Bryce emerged as a huge Democratic star. As interest groups, polling firms, super PACs, and state and national party organizations began conducting autopsies of the Dems’ devastating November loss, Bryce emerged as a reassuring figure: proof that members of the working class could still be convinced to like a Democratic candidate, no matter what the exit polls said. Bryce’s candidacy suggests Democrats don’t have to choose between cultural liberalism and economic populism. Bryce believes not just in a $15 minimum wage and Medicare for all but is also, he told me, “very pro-choice,” pro–gay marriage, pro the Paris climate accords, pro path to legalization for undocumented immigrants, and against the war on drugs. “I don’t understand why people can’t have an ‘I Back the Badge’ sign next to a ‘Black Lives Matter’ sign,” he said.
If you’re a coastal progressive who’s stressed about the divisions in your party or about the red bleeding over the 2016 electoral map, Bryce provides a welcome balm. He insists Democrats have it wrong about the white working class. His fellow ironworkers are too pressed for a decent paycheck to get as wrapped up in social issues as coastal liberals imagine, he says, while noting that there remains a suspicion that Nancy Pelosi will go door to door in a white van relieving Wisconsinites of their firearms. Yet even here, Bryce’s views aren’t that different from those of Mike Bloomberg; he favors a reasonable waiting period after a background check.
Bryce’s campaign team likes to contrast him with another candidate in whom Democrats invested their hopes and dreams: Jon Ossoff, the 30-year-old former congressional aide and documentary filmmaker who ran for the Georgia House seat vacated by Trump’s Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price. With his clean-cut visage and Capitol Hill pedigree, Ossoff seemed to point a way forward for Democrats that would compensate for the loss of white working-class voters by winning in prosperous suburbs populated by right-leaning, college-educated Trump haters. While Ossoff raised an impressive $23 million, his vagueness on economic issues led to distrust among the party’s liberal base. Ossoff came away with 48.1 percent of the vote in his runoff against Republican Karen Handel, precisely what he’d garnered in the Democratic primary eight weeks prior—proof that there’s likely a hard ceiling for Democrats in the right-leaning district.
“Ossoff was such a debacle—such an enormous waste of money for a district that we were never going to win, certainly not with a spoiled … kid who worked on the Hill,” said David Keith, a veteran Democratic operative who serves as Bryce’s campaign manager. “Randy [is] the anti-Ossoff.”
Bryce could still end up being a hard sell in southeastern Wisconsin, where boasting of working on the iron might not carry the same cultural frisson that it does out East. Even though Obama carried the district in 2008, no Democrat has gotten more than 43 percent of the vote against Ryan since he was first elected 20 years ago. The Speaker of the House also has a $10 million war chest and the ability to bring in much, much more. “So you have a hard hat. How does that qualify you go to go to Washington?” said Brandon Scholz, a long-time Wisconsin Republican strategist. “People don’t want to know what your job is. They want to know what you are going to do for them.”
Bryce’s massive fundraising success, Scholz noted, will be dwarfed by whatever Ryan raises. More to the point, most of his money so far has come from outside Wisconsin. “All that tells me is that there are a lot of people who Chuck Schumer represents who want to see Paul Ryan gone.”
Even if Ryan does end up cleaning Bryce’s clock, the ironworker’s run could nevertheless prove consequential. By giving the speaker a run for his money, he could help goose turnout and improve the chances that Democrats defeat Gov. Scott Walker. Win or lose, Bryce’s heart is clearly in the right place, and so far he hasn’t let his newfound political celebrity get to his head. But authenticity is the slipperiest of footholds, one that traffics in the cachet of lifestyle choices and political innocence over expertise or political skill. Bryce is a star primarily because he is a symbol—one that is reassuring to Democrats who want to believe the white working class can still be convinced to like them. Republicans have made similar moves while trying to appeal to constituencies that have rejected them: As the New York Times reported in 2009, a big part of why Michael Steele was made the chairman of the Republican National Committee in the wake of Obama’s 2008 win was that GOP leaders “saw selecting an African-American chairman as helpful in redefining the party’s image.”
With or without a working-class guy from central casting in their corner, Democrats were always going to face an uphill battle in their quest to defeat Ryan. They do, though, have plenty of ammunition to work with, including Ryan’s steadfast loyalty to the maniac in the White House and his support for a tax plan that massively rewards the country’s wealthiest people. Just as Ryan’s lack of working-class bona fides isn’t anywhere close to the most objectionable thing about him, Bryce’s blue-collar background shouldn’t be his major selling point. By relying on their candidate’s salt-of-the-earth image, the Democrats who are rallying around Randy Bryce risk embracing a strategy that looks as nakedly political and opportunistic as the superficial and substance-free politics they’re supposedly trying to oppose.