Randy Bryce had finished shooting the first ad for his nascent, long-shot campaign against House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) when his son Ben became concerned that it might actually get noticed.
“It was like Sunday before we launched, I went to go drop him off by his mom and he’s like, ‘So, Daddy, that video, how many people are going to see it?’ Bryce recalled at a New York City fundraiser this week.
“Probably not too many,” Bryce told his kid.
By the next morning, the spot—a two-and-half-minute emotional production featuring Bryce; his mother, who has multiple sclerosis; and his son—had become as ubiquitous on the internet as a new Justin Bieber track.
“Daddy, that video is all over mama’s Facebook!” Bryce’s son proclaimed.
It’s been over a month since Bryce’s campaign dropped that first ad in its efforts to unseat Ryan in Wisconsin’s 1st District. The spot now has nearly 550,000 views on YouTube. By the July 4 weekend, his campaign had raised more than $430,000, with more than 16,000 donations in less than a two-week span. And his Twitter account, where Bryce goes by @IronStache, has 129,000 followers and counting.
In the process, Bryce has gained a certain mystique as the prototype candidate for a Democratic Party seeking to make inroads among the working class voters who abandoned it in 2016.
Bryce certainly looks the part. He has a thick handlebar mustache—his nickname’s namesake—which rests like a caterpillar across his upper lip, rising like it’s in the process of evolution every time he smiles.
When he’s not wearing a hard hat, as he does in the ad, he often sports primary-colored polos over what could be described, affectionately, as a dadbod. He speaks with a heavy Midwestern accent plucked from the pages of a Coen brothers script.
But the small-town charm and the feel-good political story belie the incredibly difficult path that lies ahead.
Ryan has some $11 million currently on hand and hasn’t lost, or really come close to losing, to any Democrat who has previously challenged him. In 2016, he won with 65 percent of the vote.
And while Bryce may have more name ID than past opponents, his prior electoral history isn’t exactly confidence-inspiring. Bryce has lost his three attempts to seek elected office in the state: a 2012 bid for a state Assembly seat, a 2013 primary for Racine County Board of Education, and a 2014 state Senate race.
That’s all in the past, of course. And as he gears up for the difficult task of unseating a House speaker, there are a whole set of other hurdles with which Bryce must contend. Chief among them is balancing his image as the consummate Wisconsin working man with the national profile his race requires.
This past week, Iron Stache was rubbing elbows with actress Cynthia Nixon at his New York City fundraiser. He is expected to travel the country to raise more money and build up his name recognition. It is a necessary element of modern, expensive campaigns, which stretch on for inordinate amounts of time. But it risks turning Bryce into, arguably, the worst thing in politics: a typical politician.
“I’m very optimistic personally about what I’m doing,” Bryce told The Daily Beast over coffee in a booth at the Happy Days Diner, a Brooklyn approximation of standard-fare Americana. “Especially since Paul Ryan hasn’t had a credible opponent as long as he’s been in, and the fact that they came out 12 days into the campaign and the NRCC [National Republican Congressional Committee], the state Republican Party, and his own spokesperson came out attacking me. That tells me he’s concerned.”
Bryce pitches himself as Ryan’s antithesis. While Bryce resembles the spirit of the Midwest, working the iron and building infrastructure, the House speaker sits in the cozy confines of Congress. While Ryan preaches conservative economic gospel, Bryce is in favor of a single-payer health care system, campaign finance reform, and a $15 minimum wage.
Since Ryan was first elected to Congress at the turn of the millennium, Bryce says he’s seen a change in the speaker’s behavior and attitude toward his constituents. He accused Ryan of being less than accessible during the tumult of the health care debate, opting to hold employee town halls this month in Wisconsin where a number of questions were pre-selected.
“When your policies are so horrible that you’re afraid to face the people of your district, that tells you all you need to know about Paul Ryan,” Bryce said as waiters flitted around the booths of the busy diner. “When he first got in, he seemed to be a likable guy. I disagreed with his policies. And now, he’s gone total Washington.”
Ryan’s congressional campaign, not surprisingly, took umbrage with the characterization.
“Paul Ryan is focused on serving the people he represents with integrity and delivering actual results for Wisconsin,” Zack Roday, a spokesman for the campaign, told The Daily Beast. “He’s done that repeatedly—most recently by playing a key role in bringing the tech giant Foxconn to southeastern Wisconsin, and with it thousands of new jobs.”
It was not lost on Bryce that he was saying Ryan has “gone total Washington” from New York City.
The candidate had traveled to the city to hold an admittedly low-cost ($50 a pop) fundraiser organized by the Working Families Party—a progressive organization that has rallied around his campaign. But as he marveled at the city’s infrastructure and hobnobbed with its mayor, Bill de Blasio, the setting couldn’t have been more different from where he and Ryan will ultimately compete.
Still, these are the trips that advisers feel he must make. Marina Dimitrijevic, Wisconsin WFP’s state director and the person who convinced Bryce to run, said that success may require talking to WFP members in other corners of the country. The party, Dimitrijevic said, was “making this a national election.”
“You gotta remember too he’s running against a national figurehead,” Dimitrijevic told The Daily Beast. “I think it’s great that he’s going out and talking to those kinds of donors too. It’s about beating Paul Ryan, and that’s one way to do it.”
Bryce, to this point, seems comfortable with national spotlight. In the confines of the Von wine bar on Bleecker Street on an unseasonably chilly summer night, he regaled the hundred-plus crowd of WFP members, union workers, and Brooklyn hipsters with stories of his humble beginnings.
“The state Republican Party came out swinging at me, calling me a liberal agitator,” Bryce said. “That’s a badge of honor. I’m going to get that tattooed someplace on my body.”
He’s right that the NRCC has been keeping tabs. The committee recently attacked Bryce over an interview he did on CNN, during which he was pressed about funding a single-payer health care program and acknowledged he didn’t “have specifics” on the recent launch of a North Korean missile.
“Calling Randy Bryce’s interview on CNN a dumpster fire simply doesn’t do it justice,” the NRCC mercilessly responded.
Bryce told The Daily Beast the single-payer question seemed like “gotcha” and that he has since done more research on the topic. It is part of his political maturation. He’s no longer dealing with just meet-and-greets. The press corps isn’t just talking about his famous ad. The limelight and pressure that comes with running against the speaker of the House is now his life.
How It All Began
At the end of April, Dimitrijevic met with Bryce at a coffee shop in Oak Creek, a city in Milwaukee County with a population of just over 34,000 people. She had been aware of him from his involvement in local politics and his WFP membership, and suggested that he endorse Cory Mason, a member of the Wisconsin state legislature who was launching a campaign to run for mayor of Racine.
Bryce gladly agreed to do so. But by the end of the conversation, Dimitrijevic had another request. She wanted him to run against Ryan.
“I just about spit coffee,” Bryce told The Daily Beast, recalling his reaction.
“We left the meeting and he said, ‘I’m not going to rule it out,’” Dimitrijevic remembered. “And then I was sticking on him and we had a bunch of follow-up discussions.”
Less than two months later, Bryce decided to go for it. He signed up Bill Hyers, the former campaign manager for de Blasio, to helm his bid.
Hyers, along with Matt McLaughlin, who co-founded the political media firm WIN, came up with the concept for the viral ad, which included real people instead of actors and a heavy emphasis on Bryce’s working class roots.
It’s a formula they’ve used before. The duo helped run the long-shot 2016 Senate bid of Braddock, Pennsylvania, mayor John Fetterman, another politician with an untraditional look (Fetterman sports a burly beard rather than a mustache) and quasi-viral ads.
Fetterman focused his campaign on his industrial roots and his distance from traditional politics. He won accolades but not the primary.
Circumstances are different for Bryce, Fetterman said when reached by phone. Chief among them was that Donald Trump was no longer some “crackpot who was on The Apprentice" but rather president, which both energized Democrats and made it important for them to reaffirm their working class roots.
Still, Fetterman felt there were bits of wisdom that he could impart.
“You just never get high on your own supply,” he said. “You don’t believe the hype, you don’t. You take the person that you are and you stick to them. It’s hard because money is so important and influential in American politics. It’s hard to remain absolutely true to the person.”
The Future of the Stache
Though Bryce has crafted the image of a consummate outsider, he isn’t a total political neophyte.
Tony Mayrhofer, business manager for Ironworkers Local 8, the union that Bryce represented for nine years as a volunteer political coordinator, told The Daily Beast he has known Bryce since the late ’90s. When Bryce would get off work, he said, “he immediately goes to work on politics” and spend time with his son, whom Bryce calls a “little miracle.”
Even Bryce’s online moniker—“Iron Stache”—has been around for a while. He’s had the facial hair for nearly a decade and adopted the name because it seemed like a natural fit for a mustachioed man in his profession. When it came time to craft a campaign slogan, it was the obvious choice over blander alternatives, like “Bryce for Congress.”
“I was like, ‘No, I’m running as me,’” Bryce said. “Let’s just keep it and keep everything the same.”
Bryce still wants to be the family man from Wisconsin and the working man from the Midwest—even as he rubs elbows with political celebrities at bars in New York City. But circumstances make that difficult.
Over a year out from the midterm election against one of the most famous political figures in the country, the half-Polish, half-Mexican ironworking Army veteran from Caledonia has become an emblem for the progressive movement’s hopes. And he’s still getting comfortable with those burdens.
“Are we going to do this?” Bryce said at the bar on Tuesday night, the crowd roaring affirmatively in response.