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"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."
Sweating at the July 3 parade in Kenosha, Karen Erb, a 68-year-old retired teacher from Silver Lake, Wis., offered a more frank assessment of Ryan's district.
"A lot of people thought he was a nice guy, good-looking, but no one ever took his plan seriously," she said. "Now they're beginning to understand what he stands for, and they don't like it."
A handful of parade-goers in Kenosha, where Ryan also marched, carried signs blasting the Republican's budget proposal and tying him to Gov. Scott Walker (R), a lightning rod who sparked union outrage this winter with his own budget that targeted collective bargaining rights.
While the pockets of protesters criticizing Ryan on issues ranging from health care to veterans benefits and education represented Democratic outrage in the district — which broke for President Barack Obama in 2008 — they resembled a small portion of the district that spans the southern region of the Badger State. Redistricting, however, will alter the district and might provide Ryan with more of a GOP cushion than he has had in the past.
For now, though, at least in Oak Creek and Morris, Ryan was greeted with cheers, fist pumps and even pleas to run for president.
"Ryan for president!" shouted Larry Schmidt, a 46-year-old teacher who grew up in Oak Creek and lives in Milwaukee. Schmidt's brother John, 56, echoed the sentiment.
"I was discouraged when [Ryan] didn't run for Senate, but I hope he runs for president some day," the self-described independent said.
Ryan demurred on his future, saying that the next title he hopes to hold is chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.
Ryan also said he doesn't feel any blame for Republicans losing the New York special election, which Democrats touted when Rep. Kathy Hochul (D-N.Y.) won against long odds. Democrats hammered Ryan's budget plan in that race and have made it part of their national messaging plan, but so has its author.
"The lesson is, 'don't back down, get out there and you're fine,'" Ryan said.
National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas), who was criticized in the wake of Hochul's win, also predicted that Ryan — and GOP candidates who support his budget plan — will ultimately succeed.
"Paul Ryan has crafted the intellectual content to be able to go toe to toe with any president or any person that wants to talk policy in this country about the things that work and the things that we should be aiming for," Sessions said. "And Paul will win overwhelmingly because he has clear thinking that others lack."
Ryan raised $899,000 in the last quarter. Zerban's fundraising numbers were not available, although he has lined up a host of consultants and can potentially self-fund.
"It's definitely on the national level and everybody's radar," said Zerban, who walked the two-mile Kenosha parade route with a handful of followers. "This race is going to be won by the voters. As we saw in New York, you can be outspent 3-to-1 and still win the race."