KENOSHA, Wis. — In Wisconsin's 1st district, one thing Rep. Paul Ryan (R) and his Democratic opponent Rob Zerban agree on is that the race is already a national one.
The state is consumed by politics more than a year out from November 2012, thanks in part to nine heavily competitive state Senate recall elections, which begin Tuesday. But in the Kenosha-based 1st district, Ryan, the House Budget chairman, is facing his first serious Democratic challenge in years thanks to the national uproar over his budget proposal that seeks to drastically overhaul Medicare.
The seven-term Republican said his race against Zerban, which was already heating up over Independence Day, barely two months after Zerban declared his candidacy, is a template for how things might play out nationwide.
"I think it's more of trying to nationalize a race around the budget," Ryan said in an interview. "It's part of a national narrative they're trying to create about shooting the messenger. It's a way of highlighting their campaign to scare seniors this fall."
Despite his rising national profile, due in part to his budget and Democrats' frequent assaults on it, Ryan appeared a laid-back local Congressman in back-to-back July Fourth parades in his district. In the Milwaukee suburbs of Oak Creek and Franklin, Ryan waved to parade-goers with a host of volunteers in green T-shirts and two of his young children in tow. In interviews, he shrugged off his national status and said his focus will remain on fiscal issues as Budget chairman and as a Congressman from southern Wisconsin.
"I've never really liked to travel, which is why I chose the committee track instead of the leadership track," Ryan said, when asked whether he plans to campaign for candidates throughout the country next fall.
Democrats consider Ryan's a trophy seat to win after losing three of their own committee chairmen in last year's bruising midterm elections.
Zerban's candidacy has buoyed the party as it tries to reclaim its House majority. The Kenosha County supervisor and one-time food services business owner announced his campaign in April and sent out his first email fundraising plea shortly after Democrats won an upset election in New York's 26th district in May. In Kenosha, a manufacturing town badly hurt by the recession, Zerban found a warm reception from out-of-work union employees and die-hard Democrats eager to unseat Ryan.
"I feel like I've been received very warmly," Zerban said. "Granted, I'm not going to Republican Party meetings or anything like that, but I think in the state of Wisconsin, there's a very warm reception to my candidacy. I think they like having a viable candidate that can actually defeat Paul Ryan."
A Democratic aide noted that Zerban is being heavily touted on the national stage and his campaign against Ryan helped boost the party's message for 2012.
"Ryan is an issue in Congressional races around the country. He has been nationalized, via his proposal," the aide said. "This is the right time to be engaged, while people are engaged in Washington and we have a candidate holding Ryan accountable back home with his voters."
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