Bryan Steil, an attorney from Ryan’s hometown of Janesville and a member of the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents, becomes the likely Republican front-runner after the field of better-known potential candidates cleared for his entry.
“I want to take my problem-solving skills to Congress. I think they need problem solvers, doers … not talkers,” Steil said in prepared remarks announcing his candidacy.
He cited the need for a good education, quality schools and skilled workers for jobs of the future.
“I want to take our Wisconsin work ethic and my problem-solving experience to Washington’s non-stop crisis factory,” he said.
Steil, 37, entered the race less than two weeks after Ryan said he would not seek re-election. Ryan said Friday that he had no immediate plans to endorse anyone.
Steil has been a regent since 2016 and works as general counsel and secretary at Charter NEX Films Inc., an independent producer of polyethylene film used for food and consumer packaging. Steil, whose name is pronounced “style,” worked as Ryan’s personal driver from 2003 to 2004.
Steil is the first vice chairman on the Rock County Republican board and is well-known to GOP activists in Ryan’s southeastern Wisconsin congressional district, even though he doesn’t have a high public profile.
That will change in the coming weeks, with money expected to pour into the district as Republicans look to keep the seat and to avoid a potentially embarrassing Democratic win.
Among the other Republicans running for the seat are two former Ryan opponents. One of them, Jeremy Ryan, is known for riding his Segway and being a prominent liberal protester in Madison. He got 6 percent of the vote against Ryan in 2014.
Another candidate, Paul Nehlen, was banned by Twitter for racist and anti-Semitic posts earlier this year and lost to Ryan in the 2016 primary by 68 percentage points. Ryan’s campaign, among others, has said Nehlen is not fit to hold office.
Two other GOP candidates, security consulting firm co-owner and former Green Beret Nick Polce and applications engineer Kevin Adam Steen, are political newcomers.
On the Democratic side, union iron worker Randy Bryce faces Janesville teacher Cathy Myers. Bryce, who made a national splash with his launch video and nickname “Iron Stache,” has been leading in fundraising and was put on the national House Democrats’ list of top challengers in Republican-held districts even before Ryan stepped aside.
In a statement, Bryce campaign spokeswoman Lauren Hitt called Steil “part of the institutional Republican swamp that believes we should give tax breaks to the wealthy and pay for it by attacking working people’s retirements and healthcare.”
Myers criticized Steil’s record as regent. “Voters don’t want another rubber stamp in Washington, they want a representative who will fight for them,” Myers said in a statement.
The primary is Aug. 14.
The district runs from the Illinois border north to the southern suburbs of Milwaukee and includes the blue collar cities of Janesville, Beloit and Kenosha. But it also reaches into conservative Waukesha County and includes more Republican-friendly rural areas, which has helped Ryan win re-election over his 20-year career by at least 55 points each time.
President Donald Trump won the district by more than 10 percentage points while winning statewide by less than a point. In the race for an open Wisconsin Supreme Court seat earliest this month, the conservative candidate won the district by over 5 points while losing statewide by 12.
Blake Gober is a Republican strategist who is helping run Steil’s campaign for Congress. Gober said he first met Steil in 2011 when Gober was working on then-Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser’s campaign.
“Whenever there’s been a conservative candidate, he’s been out there supporting them, working for them in whatever way possible,” Gober said of Steil. “The grassroots knows him and trusts him.”
Gober said that even though Steil has been closely tied with Ryan, he won’t be viewed as a “creature” of Madison or Washington because he’s never run for office.
“He’s going to run as Bryan Steil, not as the second coming of Paul Ryan,” Gober said.