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Sunday, April 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 60.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Paul Ryan faces well-funded challenger Rob Zerban in Wisconsin's First Congressional District race

Paul Ryan, Rob Zerban
Paul Ryan, Rob Zerban
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Isthmus reporter Joe Tarr, writing about his experiences at the Democratic National Convention, recalled running into congressional candidate Rob Zerban at a nightclub in Charlotte. It was a cheerful scene, with dart-playing and jostling.

But Tarr, seeing Zerban happy, couldn't help thinking, "Poor guy. Does he know what he's up against? Does he think he has a chance?'"

The answer to both questions is yes.

"I would not have gotten into this race if I did not think I could win it," says Zerban, 44, a former Kenosha County Board member who has run successful catering businesses. Yet his candidacy is described with words like "long shot" and "uphill battle" because he's facing Republican incumbent Paul Ryan, who's simultaneously also running for vice president.

Though Wisconsin's First Congressional District sometimes votes Democratic, Ryan, 42, has been elected since 1998 with nary a close race. But Zerban, who launched his bid in April 2011, thinks events are breaking his way. Ryan's ascent into the national limelight has focused attention on his controversial budget proposals, including his call to dramatically alter Medicare.

"People are seeing a side of Paul Ryan they've never seen before," Zerban says. He portrays Ryan as running scared that he'll lose not just the vice presidency but also his congressional seat, noting his recent $2 million television ad buy.

Kevin Seifert, Ryan's campaign manager, expresses confidence in the outcome, saying "the evidence is mounting that Paul is in the driver's seat." He declines to speculate on how much the campaign will spend. But he says the cost of ads has gone up and Ryan must respond to "false attacks."

Moreover, Seifert says Ryan must do some education, to make sure voters know "you can legally vote for him twice." If Ryan wins both races, a special election would be held for his congressional seat. Other veep contenders, including Democrat Joe Biden, have doubled down on their congressional elections.

Unless he wins the Powerball, Zerban is unlikely to match Ryan's financial firepower. As of the last reporting, through July 25, Ryan had raised $4.3 million in the current election cycle and had $5.4 million on hand. That's more moolah than any other member of the state's congressional delegation, all of whom face challengers in the November 6 election.

Yet part of Zerban's optimism owes to his success at raising funds. Through July 25, federal records show, Zerban had raised $1.2 million, more than any other Wisconsin congressional challenger. That's quite a step up from Ryan's last rival, in 2010, who raised about $12,000.

And Zerban, while declining to discuss his receipts through September 30, the next cutoff date, says "we are very happy with the fundraising we've done this quarter, and I think a lot of people will be very impressed with the numbers we post." The reports are due October 15.

Zerban says his polling suggests that the race is within reach, but that his name recognition remains low, at around 33 percent. Ryan is not exactly helping in this regard. He hasn't mentioned Zerban in any of his three commercials, and has yet to agree to a debate, despite a petition drive from the Zerban campaign and pressure from some editorial boards.

"It depends on the Romney-Ryan schedule," Seifert says of a possible debate. Zerban argues that Ryan has a duty to his constituents to debate, as he has with past challengers. But he concedes it's smart for Ryan to marginalize his opponent.

"I think he's a very shrewd politician and very cunning," Zerban says. "Politically, he's doing what he should do. He should never acknowledge me."


Bill Lueders (blueders@wisconsinwatch.org) is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The project, a partnership with MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.

The nonprofit and nonpartisan Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Television, Wisconsin Public Radio, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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