It was a friendly audience, but Randy Bryce’s voice shook anyway.
This speech was among his first to a national crowd of this size—over 1500 people passionate about progressive politics packed into a cavernous hall at the Netroots Nation conference held in Atlanta earlier this month. Towering screens on either side of the podium projected his now famously mustachioed face to the crowd.
Bryce took pauses to check his notes. A bumped mic filled the air with static. He wasn’t smooth or showy in the way one might expect a U.S. Congressional candidate to be, especially one seeking to unseat a nearly 20-year incumbent, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.
But then Randy Bryce said something that Paul Ryan could not: “What I’m doing isn’t about me.”
That message is such a threat that Ryan is planning his first town hall meeting in nearly two years, an event that will be broadcast Monday night on CNN. It’s also an idea that has galvanized a left wary of personality politics, signaling a return to running on the issues and for the people.
Bryce, who’s lost each of his three previous bids for elected office in Wisconsin, made his mission clear in his first campaign ad, released in June.
“We can do so much better together, as a community,” he says. “And our future depends on it.”
It’s a powerful line that was even more powerfully timed, released smack in the middle of Republican efforts to pass the wildly unpopular Affordable Care Act replacement, a bill written by his opponent.
Within 24 hours, the video went viral and generated $100,000 in donations for Bryce, and an equally stunning number of Twitter followers. He appeared on cable news shows and very suddenly, noted Esquire in one of several glossy magazine features, became a capital-N, capital-F “National Figure.”
The ad focuses on health care but Bryce and his campaign have zeroed in on an even bigger vulnerability of Ryan’s, and more broadly, of the American experiment itself: the dogged devotion, both personally and politically, to individualism.
Ryan has built his entire political career on prioritizing the individual over society. This foundational conservative principle always made sense to the son of a wealthy and well-connected family. Whatever Ryan aimed for, he most often got.
Individualism is the through-line of Ryan’s entire legislative agenda, including his draconian budgets that attempted to slash social programs that work to benefit the collective, and most recently, the American Health Care Act.
During the lead-up to the 2010 election, in which a wave of Tea Party candidates who idolize Ryan were voted into office, Ryan called the tax-and-spend agenda of the still-new Obama administration an attack on “individualism and freedom...an attack on the moral foundation of America.”
It is fitting then that Ryan’s first town hall in nearly two years, is not really a traditional open town hall with a focus on constituent questions, but instead a glittering CNN television event, moderated by news host Jake Tapper. It’s a rehash of last year’s CNN-Paul Ryan production in New York City prior to the Republican National Convention, adjusted so that locals can come this time—if their application for an invite is accepted. The network is also vetting questions.
“Problem with calling this thing a #townhall is that Ryan thinks he's done his due diligence ‘representing’ which he hasn't,” Bryce tweeted Sunday night.
The event itself seems like a direct response to the Bryce campaign, which has repeatedly pointed out Ryan’s lack of local town hall meetings in the last two years. Earlier this summer, Ryan explained that he offers office hours and phone conference meetings instead, citing “obvious security concerns” and the potential for “a shouting fest.”
That’s no deterrent for Bryce, who cut his teeth as the longtime volunteer political coordinator for his union Ironworkers Local 8. He was a fixture at the Wisconsin Capitol building in Madison during the days of so-called Wisconsin Uprising, when massive protests swelled the city following Scott Walker’s multi-pronged attack on labor unions.
“It’s kind of similar to grabbing a bullhorn,” he told The Progressive after taking to the stage for his big speech in Atlanta. “It’s actually easier because I don’t have to yell and I have both of my hands free.”
Bryce’s campaign has leaned into his working-class bonafides as an ironworker and a union man. He eschews the suit and tie favored by Ryan for literal blue, collared shirts. He passed out rainbow-colored toy mustaches at the Madison Pride Parade.
With the launch of his campaign, Twitter squealed, “I want him to be my father.” He was likened to Ron Swanson, a manly, thickly mustachioed government employee on the TV series Parks & Recreation. One fan tweeted her children’s drawings of Bryce as superhero Iron Man.
It’s tempting to iconize Bryce, but too much of an emphasis on personality over issues can be dangerous, explains LaToia Jones, a longtime Democratic organizer who unsuccessfully ran for vice chair of the Democratic National Convention earlier this year.
“The issue that I have with personality-driven campaigns is that you lose the local connection,” Jones told The Progressive. “It gets us the White House but it loses the House and the Senate. The reality is that when we focus on one person and one person’s vision as opposed to talking about the democratic values we have locally, we don’t have statehouses, we don’t win municipal elections, we don’t win governor’s races.”
Maryland gubernatorial candidate and former NAACP president Ben Jealous, stumping alongside Bryce at Netroots Nation, also honed in on this same message.
“We're not going to win by running to the left, or running to the right, but running towards the people," he said to cheers.
While Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign successfully organized around core democratic issues and a “for the people” message, critics said it suffered from a cult of personality that coalesced around Sanders in a way that alienated potential Democratic voters.
It is smart then, for Bryce to continue countering Ryan with the language of “we” and the platform to back it up. Whether it is healthcare or social security or public education or fighting climate change, the most pressing challenges we face require the collective will to carry each other.
“I’d like to think other people want the best for their neighbors,” Bryce said. “That’s pretty much all that I’m doing.”