While it makes sense that Paul Ryan would be the conservative pin-up guy in 2010, the story was much different in 1998, when he embarked on his first congressional race.
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.”
Early on the campaign rolled along smoothly, setting up as a traditional liberal versus conservative race. First Lady Hillary Clinton showed up to stump for Spottswood; Ryan hosted national conservative figures like Steve Forbes and his mentor, Jack Kemp. Throughout the summer, polls still showed Ryan losing to Spottswood, but the gap was closing. As a result, Ryan believes Spottswood “threw the kitchen sink” at him, which ended up hurting her own creditability in the long run.
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.
While the First Congressional District was considered by many to be a hotly contested race, Ryan cruised by Spottswood on election day, winning with 57.2% of the vote. It would be the last time anyone got that close to Ryan, as he won his next five elections with an average of 65.9% of the vote. In four of those elections, late Democratic physician Jeff Thomas played the role of Washington Generals to Ryan’s Harlem Globetrotters, losing by wide margins each time.