By Joe Kelly/Courthouse News
MILWAUKEE (CN) – Politically, states don’t get much more purple than Wisconsin. The fluidity of that red-to-blue gradient is about to be tested in the Nov. 6 midterm election as a seat long held but soon to be vacated by House Speaker Paul Ryan is up for grabs, along with the governorship.
The 1st Congressional District election is a hotly contested race between former ironworker and first-time candidate Randy Bryce and Bryan Steil, a corporate attorney and a former member of Ryan’s staff. The race for governor, which polls also show as a toss-up, is between state schools superintendent Tony Evers and two-term incumbent Scott Walker.
The fight for the 1st District seat can be read in many ways as a forum on Ryan’s outsized influence in the region.
However, at a debate Tuesday at Carthage College in Kenosha featuring the two frontrunners and Independent candidate Ken Yorgan, Ryan’s name did not come up as often as one would expect.
The debate, which had about 300 attendees, was more focused on the issues than the political cachet of the district’s native son.
Those issues- immigration, taxes, criminal justice reform, education and the state of health care- resonated with those in attendance.
Health care was a particularly key issue for many, including Dawn Hunter, who works as a licensed social worker. Hunter walks with the assistance of a cane after breaking her back in an accident.
“Any accident you have can change your life and the medical costs can lead to bankruptcy,” Hunter said. “That shouldn’t be.”
This hard truth is not lost on Bryce, who is himself a survivor of testicular cancer.
“People should not have to make life or death decisions just because they can’t afford to see a doctor,” Bryce said.
Bryce supports the passage of Medicare for All legislation. Steil took the opposite tack.
“The Affordable Care Act has failed,” Steil said, adding that health care needs a systemic reform that “puts patients and doctors at the center of the conversation.”
Hunter is a Bryce supporter and admires his approachability.
“He’s for the regular guy,” she said. “He’s grassroots.”
“He is Kenosha,” she added.
Not everyone agreed with that assessment.
Joe Geiger, a small business owner in the Kenosha area, supports Steil. His reasons varied, but there was some shadow cast from the current national political moment.
“He’s a Trump supporter, for one,” Geiger said.
Geiger highlighted the ways that Steil aligns with President Donald Trump on things like sanctuary cities, border security and constitutional protections as points in his favor.
Consideration of a candidate’s authenticity was also important to Geiger, who praised Steil as approachable each time he had met him.
“The other guy might be, too,” Geiger said. “I don’t know. I don’t plan on finding out.”
The perceived transparency of a candidate’s motivations and personality is part of what Trump supporters continue to love about him.
But James Meason, a student at Carthage College, didn’t see the Midwest elections in Wisconsin as necessarily being a referendum on the president.
“I see it as a referendum on the actions of Congress more than on President Trump,” Meason said. “Trump says what he says, but Americans are concerned with a lack of action from Congress.”
In passing, Meason mentioned that he is from Kenosha. As he phrases it, “right in the heart of a former union town.”
He, along with Bryce, whose political stripes are identified with his devotion to unionized labor, feels that Governor Walker has unnecessarily targeted unions, particularly with legislation like Act 10, a 2011 bill that, among other measures, weakened the collective bargaining power of many public-sector employees.
With the governor’s mansion on the table in November, implications of a possible blue wave extend to Madison as well.
The most recent Marquette Law School poll showed Walker having closed the gap between himself and Evers, leaving the race in a statistical tie. The latest NBC News/Marist poll showed 53 percent of likely voters in favor of Evers, with 43 percent in favor of Walker.
Evers and Walker had a somewhat chippy debate themselves on Friday, Oct. 19, in Oak Creek, a southern suburb of Milwaukee.
The two candidates exchanged darts over taxes, health care, immigration and infrastructure.
Walker brought up his claim that Evers would raise the gas tax by as much as $1 per gallon, an assertion Evers has repeatedly denied and Politifact found to be suspect.
On health care, Walker is a longtime opponent of the ACA and this year cleared Wisconsin to join a lawsuit seeking to repeal the legislation. Evers is a supporter of the law commonly known as Obamacare.
Both candidates have dealt with embarrassing hiccups this past week. Walker is dealing with a recent letter signed by a former cabinet member, the fourth to come forward criticizing him, and two former secretaries urging Evers’ election.
Evers, meanwhile, is defending himself against the revelation that portions of a budget proposal he submitted had passages taken from other sources without credit.
Each candidate waved off the issues at the debate.
As Election Day approaches, the salt of all the candidates will be tested, and the voters of this crucial swing state will decide the shade of the state’s palate.
At the Carthage College debate, Linda Horton, a Kenosha resident voting for Bryce, said it does not just boil down to any single issue or any single candidate’s tough talk.
“It’s about what you stand for,” she said.