As Republican conventioneers in Tampa wait to nominate Representative Paul Ryan as their vice-presidential candidate, it is instructive to look back at Ryan’s early years to give delegates a sense of just how good a campaigner he is. A couple years ago, I took a look at Ryan’s first campaign back in 1998, in which the 28-year-old congressional aide came from well behind to take down a hard-fighting challenger:
Ryan began the race as a heavy underdog to Democrat Lydia Spottswood, who had narrowly lost to incumbent Mark Neumann two years before. The Neumann-Spottswood race of 1996 was brutal, bare-knuckle politics, derided by many as one of the dirtiest campaigns they’ve seen in Wisconsin’s history. With Neumann leaving the seat, it appeared the door had opened wide for Spottswood.
It was clear that Spottswood wasn’t taking her new young challenger very seriously, and that she was going to make his age an issue. At one debate, Spottswood commented that she was “old enough to be his mother.” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Eugene Kane also took a snarky shot at Ryan’s youth, writing:
“Ryan, a high school senior, has apparently decided to run for national office as part of a school project or something. It’s an admirable message for the youth in our community. How did he raise the money anyway, selling lemonade? Although it’s almost laughable someone so young would think he actually has a chance to win.”
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel didn’t give Ryan much of a shot, either — in April, it reported that “although Ryan may prove to be a good candidate, he is the underdog by any conventional measure.” . . .
On September 11, 1998, the world was shocked with the release of the Starr Report, which detailed President Clinton’s sexual dalliances in the Oval Office with intern Monica Lewinsky. Ryan had previously called for Clinton to resign; but after the release of the Starr Report, he backed off and said he wasn’t sure if the president should be impeached.
Looking back, Ryan thinks an effort made by national groups to use the Starr Report to benefit Republicans may have backfired; he remembers his numbers dropping when impeachment became a campaign issue, then his numbers going back up as the issue faded. But it is tantalizing to consider whether the priapic misadventures of one president may have birthed the political career of a future one.
As the election approached, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial board endorsed Spottswood, calling Ryan a “28-year old intellectual,” but preferring Spottswood’s “hands-on experience in government.” (Naturally, they made no mention of Spottswood’s age.)
Ryan’s first race also featured one of his few political missteps. He was mocked in the local media for creepy television ad he ran that featured the young Ryan walking around a cemetery. The ad was supposed to convey that Ryan had deep roots in the community; instead, it alerted citizens of the district to the fact that the undead may be coming to steal their children.
On election day, Ryan defeated Spottswood, garnering 57.2 percent of the vote. In a swing district long held by Democrats, he has never been seriously challenged, averaging about 66 percent of the vote in his last five elections. And this week, the nation gets to see what has so thoroughly won his constituents over.
— Christian Schneider is a columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.