Democrat Randy Bryce didn’t win his race for Congress. But as he thanked his supporters on Election Night, after the race was called for Republican Brian Steil, the fifty-four-year-old ironworker took a longer view.
“I’ve said it many times,” Bryce told the crowd of staffers, volunteers, and admirers who filled the hall in Racine, Wisconsin. “It’s not just about just winning one seat—the First District Congressional seat in southeast Wisconsin. It was never about that.
“It’s about not being a backdrop any more—not having working people be the backdrop, but actually coming up and grabbing the microphone. Because it’s about time that we’re heard.”
Given the heady excitement that Bryce’s campaign for the seat now held by Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan had sparked among Democrats, the loss might have been expected to cast a shadow over the evening. Yet instead of gloom, Bryce and his supporters seemed to exude an air of gritty resolve.
“We really did build something cool here,” retired letter carrier Jody Spencer told The Progressive as she reflected on her months of volunteering for the campaign and, later, working temporarily for the AFL-CIO in getting out union voters on Election Day.
Bryce, she said, set an example for the kind of persistence that will be needed to sustain what the campaign started. “He really gave it his all.”
And despite Bryce’s loss, the campaign, and the candidate, point to a path forward for progressives, Racine state representative Greta Neubauer told The Progressive in the hours after the polls closed.
That path? “It is continuing the model of grass-roots organizing that Randy brought to the district,” Neubauer said.
Paul Ryan has represented Wisconsin’s First Congressional District since 1998, and for election cycle after election cycle, Democrats despaired of ever being able to unseat him. Yet months after Bryce launched his campaign with an online video that went viral, Ryan suddenly opted not to run for reelection.
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“Randy brought hope,” Neubauer said, explaining that this was reflected in Bryce’s own working-class identity. “We saw through this race how much it resonated that he was a working person. People want their representatives to look like them, and have lives like them.”
“Randy brought hope. People want their representatives to look like them, and have lives like them.”
And to connect, Neubauer continued, there is no substitute for going door to door, the ultimate in retail political organizing. “Getting out there and sharing stories,” she said. “It is hard. It is hard work and it takes a lot of hours.”
For Racine alderman John Tate II, a Bryce campaign volunteer, the evidence that kind of work can pay off showed itself in turnout that “exploded” in Racine. “We had people who typically don’t vote who turned out,” Tate said.
They turned out, he suggested, because Bryce wasn’t just another lawyer or other wealthy professional of the sort who disproportionately make up Congress, state legislatures and other government posts. And Bryce received their support despite being plagued by personal scandal including a history of arrests.
Skilled tradespeople like Bryce, or social workers (Tate’s occupation), or people from any number of ordinary walks of life need the opportunity and encouragement to pursue political office. “We have to have a diverse perspective,” Tate said. “We have to have more women, more people of color, more non-traditional people.”
Echoing a remark Bryce had made to the crowd earlier, Tate said this loss was simply one chapter in a much longer story.
“Movements don’t happen in a single cycle,” he said, flashing a smile.