Is IronStache the New Bernie Sanders? Meet the Ironworker Who Wants to Bring White People Back to the Democratic Party

randy bryce
Randy Bryce, Wisconsin candidate for Congress. Bryce Campaign

Amid grief and anxiety over the presidential election, confirmation of a conservative Supreme Court justice and a drive to dismantle Obamacare, Democrats needed a lift this summer. They found it in a two-and-a-half-minute political ad featuring a Wisconsin ironworker named Randy Bryce.

Framed by pastoral backdrops and the swelling strains of stringed instruments, the mustachioed laborer is shown comforting his ailing mother, talking about the importance of health care and, clad in a hard hat and soiled work clothes, vowing to unseat Paul Ryan in the U.S. House speaker’s home district.

“Let’s trade places,” Bryce says in the spot. “Paul, you can come work the iron, and I can go to D.C.”

The ad went viral—and “IronStache” was born. Democrats across the country suddenly saw a way to win back the kinds of working-class voters who defected from their party last year and helped Donald Trump win the presidency.

While Bryce is a long shot candidate—the district is heavily Republican and preferred Trump by about 10 points last fall—Democratic Party leaders and operatives are now seeking to replicate his brand of bootstrap pragmatism and heartland patriotism.

For example, in Michigan’s 8th Congressional District, former CIA and Pentagon staffer Elissa Slotkin’s website says she’s been “proud to work for both Republican and Democratic leaders who put the good of our country over politics”—and her introductory video shows her shaking hands with an ex-boss: Republican then-President George W. Bush. In California’s 50th District, former Navy SEAL Josh Butner wants to take on incumbent GOP Representative Duncan Hunter. And facing off in a Democratic primary in Virginia’s 7th, now held by Tea Party champion Dave Brat, are former CIA operations officer Abigail Spanberger and Dan Ward, a Marine combat veteran turned Boeing 777 pilot turned—wait for it—cattle rancher.

Those are the kind of centrist, bipartisan profiles that appeal to the “free agent” voters who were “a small but important number in 2016,” said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist and Clinton White House veteran.

“Right now, those voters have no real home, because neither party actually speaks to them,” Lehane told Newsweek. “Many need to have government playing a role in their lives for them and their kids to get a fair shake, but their experience over the last generation has been that Democrats merely offer a weak handshake, while the Republicans are basically offering a firm handshake and then pulling it back at the last second.”

These voters, he said, will be “the new swing voter bloc going forward.”

In early November, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced an updated “offensive battlefield” map of 91 districts. Of those, Hillary Clinton carried only 23 in 2016, noted DCCC Communications Director Meredith Kelly. “Democratic candidates are stepping up to serve and hold House Republicans accountable, with records of service that will help them be successful by earning the trust of Democratic base voters as well as moderates and Republicans,” she said.  

“IronStache” is convinced his blueprint can help usher in a Democratic wave.

He told Newsweek: "People I'm running into [are] saying they didn't vote for Hillary [Clinton] because they saw her as part of the establishment…. They were afraid that she was going to keep things as is.”

At the same time, he said he sees "a lot of buyer's remorse” among Trump voters who “feel lied to” about campaign pledges that haven’t materialized, thanks in part to Beltway gridlock as usual.

“Those same people that are against the way things have been in Washington, D.C., see Paul Ryan as the head of the snake right now,” said Bryce, who just captured the endorsement of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders—the man who routed Clinton by 13 percentage points in Wisconsin’s 2016 Democratic presidential primary.

On the trail, Bryce can talk not only about working with his hands, but about serving in the military. Fighting cancer. Caring for sick parents. Filing for bankruptcy. Being a single dad. (As one Entertainment Weekly wag put it, Bryce was “genetically engineered from Bruce Springsteen songs.” In the same vein, a strategist joked to Newsweek that Ward, the former Marine running in Virginia, “was basically created in a lab for other white men” who could potentially vote Democratic.)

By comparison, Bryce scoffs, the buttoned-up Ryan is “a lifetime politician” who’s disconnected from the constituents that elected him.

Bryce’s image as a candidate is obviously crafted to be more heartland than Hollywood, and most of his money comes from small donors, but he’s also getting financial and social media support from celebrities including actress Susan Sarandon, comedian Chelsea Handler and TV star Bradley Whitford.

The National Republican Congressional Committee isn’t buying into the IronStache story.

“It’s all fake. It’s all for show,” NRCC spokesman Chris Martin told Newsweek. “The excitement for his campaign is all D.C. It’s completely phony.”

Jeremy Adler, political spokesman for Ryan, also expressed no particular concern that Bryce could put the district in play, much less flip it: “Southeastern Wisconsinites know Paul and know that he’s working hard on their behalf every single day," he said. "On issue after issue, he’s put more money back in the pockets of his constituents and fought to make it easier for them to get ahead."

To be sure, the model doesn’t always work: It was, memorably, also a viral ad that let Missouri Democrat Jason Kander catch the nation’s eye during his 2016 challenge to incumbent Republican Senator Roy Blunt. The spot had Kander, an Army vet, casually outlining his argument for gun control while assembling a rifle—blindfolded.

Kander’s run against Blunt drowned in the Trump tidal wave, but it put him on the political map. Although he hasn’t disclosed an electoral plan, he still talks decidedly like a candidate—about wanting to “unite the country again” by making “the argument for progressive values”—as he travels the U.S. as a voting-rights proponent and podcast host who encourages people to engage in civil conversation across the aisle, and to seek office themselves.

Democrats have enjoyed victories since Trump’s upset victory, but that doesn’t mean the party should rely on the rhetoric of political retribution, said former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who just launched the “Win Back Your State” PAC to help propel more Democrats into office. Instead, the 2016 presidential hopeful said, Democrats need to steer clear of identity politics and stick to dollars-and-cents issues that cut across demographics.

“A lot of people last year wanted a sledgehammer. They didn't care whether it was handed to them from the left or the right—they were going to break the table of democracy [and] send their national politicians a message that they weren't happy,” O’Malley said. “But now, against the dark canvas that is this Trump administration, people are listening for more timeless American values from our candidates.”

Republicans are hardly enjoying a golden age of unity even though they control of the White House and both chambers of Congress. Still, the midterms are a political eternity away. More specifically, they will be another year into the tenure of arguably the most unpredictable president in modern history.

“There's no question that the House is in play [for] two reasons: Donald Trump and House Republicans,” former Representative Steve Israel, the onetime head of the DCCC, told Newsweek. “A midterm election is always a referendum on the president's party and the congressional majority, so any strategy that establishes a vivid contrast between a Democratic candidate and the Republican brand right now is a good strategy.”

But does Israel really buy that Ryan, an incumbent House speaker with a major cash advantage, could be taken down by an upstart—even one that outraised him, as Team Bryce likes to point out, by three to one last quarter?

“I buy it based on history,” he said. In 1994, “nobody believed that Democratic Speaker of the House Tom Foley was going to lose his election in Washington state, and that shocked the world. We are in a very similar environment right now.”

Ryan’s speakership may even be a particular prize for those who feel disappointed or marginalized by the House GOP, Israel said: “Paul Ryan is a symbol for a lot of them. [Bryce] will have an appeal to grassroots donors and grassroots activists because he's running against the symbol of House Republicans. [It’s] the ancient art of warfare that if you can wound the general, you've won the war.”

Bryce acknowledged his race against Ryan is “an uphill battle for sure, and we need as many people [as possible] to push, pull and drag us to get over this mountain.” But, true to the camera-friendly image he’s cultivated, he brings his sales pitch back to a carefully neutral message of American aspiration: “Nothing's impossible.”

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