WASHINGTON — If you can’t name the guy who took over for Paul Ryan in Wisconsin’s 1st District, you’re not alone.
It’s Bryan Steil, a relative political novice who won the seat in a hard-fought race last November after Ryan announced his retirement.
Comparisons are frequently made between Steil — who once worked for Ryan on Capitol Hill — and his former boss. Steil has been dubbed “Ryan 2.0.” They’re both dark-haired Janesville natives and GOP loyalists who attend the same Catholic church in their hometown.
But Steil has only a tiny fraction of the power and nowhere near the state and national name recognition that Ryan had when he stepped down earlier this year. Ryan, who spent two decades representing the southeast corner of the state, became a household name once he was tapped as Mitt Romney’s vice presidential nominee in 2012 and went on to become speaker of the House in 2015.
Ryan has been in the headlines again this month as he’s drawn President Trump’s wrath on Twitter. Ryan was quoted in a new book saying that Trump “didn’t know anything about government” … and that Ryan and others “really helped to stop him from making bad decisions.”
Trump lashed out with tweets calling Ryan a “failed V.P. candidate” who blew the House majority away with “his poor leadership and bad timing.”
For his part, Steil doesn’t appear at all inclined to jump into the near-constant political spats playing out on Capitol Hill and on social media. He’s assumed a low-key role as a rank-and-file Republican in the House minority, siding with Trump 97.4% of the time on key House votes, according to an analysis by the website FiveThirtyEight.
“Right now, it seems like he is taking the path of not trying to be too noteworthy, which in this polarized environment, noteworthy would likely be synonymous with controversial,” said Kenneth Mayer, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Steil appears to be “kind of generic and noncontroversial and doesn’t seem to be a bomb-thrower,” Mayer added.
Steil’s office did not respond to requests for an interview.
Praise for Trump, but not photo ops
As a fight over Trump’s racist tweets toward Democratic members of the House dominated discussions on Capitol Hill this week, Steil’s Twitter account steered clear of the issue and his spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment. Steil touted a Wisconsin lip balm manufacturer visiting the White House, bragged about his first bill clearing the House and posted pictures of himself at “Ribfest” in Elkhorn.
Steil joined nearly all House Republicans Tuesday voting against a House resolution to condemn Trump’s suggestion that four Democratic women of color “go back” to the “places from which they came,” all though all are U.S. citizens and three of the four were born in the United States.
Defending his vote in a call with constituents on Tuesday, Steil said “personal attacks” are detracting from work on policy, the Janesville Gazette reported. “It frustrates me to no end what’s going on out here in Washington. … You look at the reactions to the president’s tweets: It focuses on the person and not on the policy. I don’t think it helps us move forward,” Steil said.
Although he supports Trump, Steil isn’t publicly embracing him in the same way that some of his GOP colleagues have. When Trump visited Milwaukee earlier this month, for example, Steil issued a statement praising the president, but steered clear of the event, the Kenosha News reported.
Steil, 38, worked for Ryan from 2003 to 2004 after graduating from Georgetown University in Washington. He returned to his home state for law school, graduating from the University of Wisconsin in 2007. He then worked as a corporate attorney for the electric motor manufacturing company Regal Beloit and the plastics manufacturer Charter NEX Film before running for Congress in 2018.
He’s brushed off characterizations that he’s Ryan 2.0. “My unique background is from the roots of southeast Wisconsin and working at businesses in southeast Wisconsin, from living in southeast Wisconsin in Janesville. That doesn’t mean I’m inherently better. It’s just unique,” the freshman lawmaker told Roll Call earlier this year.
In 2018, Steil beat Racine ironworker Randy Bryce by about 12 points, despite an outpouring of Democratic cash and enthusiasm. During the campaign, Bryce was plagued by reports that he failed to pay child support and had been arrested multiple times.
Democrats say they’re eyeing Steil’s seat as a pickup opportunity in 2020.
“In 2018, Democrats won a majority in the House by competing in every corner of the map and focusing on putting the middle-class first by fighting to lower health care costs and create greater economic opportunity for working families,” said Mike Gwin, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).
“The DCCC is remaining on the offense in 2020 and will use that same playbook to protect and expand the Democratic majority by targeting Republicans like Bryan Steil who put the interests of their corporate donors ahead of doing right by their constituents,” Gwin added.
In his most recent campaign finance report filed this month, Steil had more than $700,000 in the bank to use in the 2020 cycle.
One of his donors was H. Ross Perot, Jr., a Dallas real estate developer and the son of the late presidential candidate Ross Perot. Steil’s other deep-pocketed donors also include billionaire Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of the private equity firm Blackstone Group; New York real estate investor Steven Roth, founder and chairman of Vornado Realty Trust; and Craig Leipold, the owner of the Minnesota Wild National Hockey League team.
No Democrats have yet filed to run against Steil in 2020, but it’s still early in the campaign cycle.
Limited influence for now
Wisconsin’s 1st District could have less sway now that it’s represented by a freshman instead of the top-ranking Republican.
“It will always be significant when you go from quite literally the most important person in the House of Representatives to someone who is one of the least important people in the House of Representatives,” said Mayer of the University of Wisconsin.
Junior lawmakers are less able to secure local benefits for their districts and set the national policy agenda. Steil landed on the powerful Financial Services Committee, but Mayer noted that those issues are “not the kind of thing that’s going to be front and center in his district” and as a freshman, he’ll have “limited influence on what they do.”
Still, every congressional lawmaker is a newbie at some point. His supporters expect that, in time, he’ll emerge from Ryan’s shadow and stands to become a major player in the GOP.
“I think he’s a rising star,” said Wisconsin Republican Rep. Glenn Grothman, who has been ensconced in state politics since he joined the State Assembly in 1993. He’s represented the 6th District between Milwaukee and Green Bay since 2015.
“I think Bryan’s doing a great job and he may be able to give more attention to the state because when you’re speaker, you have to look out for the whole country,” Grothman told the Wisconsin Examiner in a brief interview on Capitol Hill this week.
Wisconsin Republican strategist Mark Graul pointed to Steil as a member of the next generation of state GOP leaders, along with former Lieutenant Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and Republican Reps. Sean Duffy and Mike Gallagher.
Steil survived “an incredibly difficult campaign” and has gotten off to a solid start by focusing “bread and butter issues” since arriving on Capitol Hill, Graul said. “Congressman Steil fits his district well.”