On Tuesday night, Speaker Paul D. Ryan will be seated directly behind President Donald Trump for Trump’s first State of the Union. And somewhere above the House floor, Randy Bryce will be sitting in the House gallery with his work boots on.
“The whole campaign has been, ‘Just be you,’” Bryce said, explaining his decision to dress casually. “That’s what I’ve been told: ‘Just be you.’ And that’s me. They’re comfortable.”
Bryce appears to be the only congressional candidate who has been invited to the annual address, where lawmakers typically invite constituents who are tied to specific issues. Wisconsin Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan instead opted to invite Bryce, the former iron worker who taken on the tall task of unseating Ryan, one of the post powerful Republicans in the nation’s capital.
Watch: What You Won’t See On Camera at the State of the Union
Bryce burst onto the political scene with a viral campaign announcement video, highlighting his mother’s health struggle as Congress debated repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act. The two-and-a-half minute introduction captivated Democrats hoping to appeal to the working class voters who abandoned the party and voted for Trump in 2016.
Pocan said in a Tuesday interview that his decision to invite Bryce was not about politics. He wanted Bryce in the room because he represents working people who are struggling.
Pocan has been criticized for the move. GOP Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, the most senior Wisconsin lawmaker, told the Associated Press on Monday that Pocan inviting Bryce was “disrespectful and out of bounds,” and an attempt to “score cheap political points.”
“I wish he said something on one of the multiple occasions that required a response from a Republican in Congress,” Pocan said when asked about the criticism, referring to times when he believes Republicans should have stood up to Trump, including when he reportedly referred to African nations as “shithole countries.”
But politics will be unavoidable. Bryce’s presence at the State of the Union also highlights Democrats’ fight to take back the House. Ryan’s district in southeast Wisconsin is one of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s 91 targets in 2018.
For Bryce, attending the State of the Union is another way to “hold Paul Ryan accountable.”
Bryce also plans to launch a television ad tying Trump to Ryan on Tuesday night. The ad is part of a $50,000 buy, which includes a national slot on MSNBC, as well as additional slots in the Milwaukee, Madison, Seattle and San Francisco media markets.
Bryce campaign spokeswoman Lauren Hitt wrote in an email the campaign is airing ads outside of Wisconsin because of Ryan’s national profile and his fundraising ability, especially from big-dollar donors.
“[We] need a grassroots army if we’re going to take him down,” Hitt wrote.
Bryce and Pocan criticized the speaker for opting not to hold open town hall meetings with constituents . Pocan, who represents the neighboring 2nd District, held four “Adopt a District” town hall meetings in Ryan’s district last year. Pocan and his husband are both originally from the 1st District.
Whether voters in the 1st District will choose Bryce over Ryan remains to be seen. Trump won the district by 10 points in 2016, and Ryan won re-election by 35 points.
Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the 1st District as Solidly Republican. And Bryce has embraced liberal positions including support for Medicare-for-All and a $15 minimum wage.
Democrats have been impressed with Bryce’s fundraising. He raked in $1.2 million in the last fundraising quarter, according to his campaign. However, the most recent Federal Election Committee data from the end of September showed most of the individual campaign contributions came from New York and California.
Republicans have attacked Bryce’s national appeal, arguing he does not have sufficient support in Wisconsin.
They most recently pointed to a New York Times exposé on the social media “black market” in which people can buy followers on Twitter. Bryce was named in the story for purchasing Twitter followers in 2015.
Bryce explained that he was trying to garner followers for a blog dubbed “Iron Stache” (still the name of his Twitter handle) that he was writing in his spare time, and he paid $15 for 2,000 followers. He dismissed a question about concerns that the followers are fake and in some cases impersonate real people.
“I had no idea how that worked,” Bryce said.
Bryce also dismissed GOP claims that his support in Wisconsin is artificial. Brye said his work as a union organizer opposing GOP Gov. Scott Walker has made him known in the district and the state capital.
“The people of the district know who I am,” Bryce said.
Ryan is a fundraising powerhouse, though. In the fourth quarter, Ryan raised nearly $5 million, and he transferred more than $32 million to the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2017. Even if Bryce cannot beat Ryan, he could force Ryan to spend on his own race, diverting GOP resources from other top races.
But Bryce said he’s in it to win it.
“I wouldn’t waste a year, year and a half, of my life doing this if it couldn’t be done,” Bryce said in an interview at the DCCC on Monday.
With the November election roughly nine months away, Bryce said his presence Tuesday night will send a message to Ryan and others in Congress who, in his view, are neglecting their constituents.