JANESVILLE, Wis. – Rob Zerban spent his morning on his hands and knees scrubbing a toilet in a homeless shelter. Half a country away, Paul Ryan stood under a spotlight in Virginia talking about why he should be the next vice president.
So it goes in Zerban’s longshot bid to seize the House seat Ryan has held for 14 years. While the Republican vice presidential hopeful has jetted around the country touting Mitt Romney, the Kenosha Democrat has been getting his hands dirty in southern Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District.
Most challengers face uphill battles against established incumbents, but Zerban’s predicament is especially tough: He’s essentially battling a phantom.
Ryan has scarcely acknowledged he even faces a challenger back home. He’s made only a couple of campaign stops in the district since Romney tapped him as his running mate in August, and each time he’s focused on the White House. And Ryan’s absence hasn’t seemed to hurt him.
“You’ve got to give the guy credit,” Brandon Scholz, a Madison lobbyist who has worked on a number of GOP congressional campaigns, said of Zerban. “But he’s running against someone who at this point in the election is larger than life.”
Even fellow Democrats acknowledge Zerban faces long odds. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee hasn’t invested any money in his campaign.
With the district suffering economically, Zerban thought he could make political inroads by attacking Ryan’s plan for cutting entitlements and social spending. But with no one to engage, he’s been reduced to crying foul from the sidelines. He has demanded that Ryan debate him and gone around the district doing volunteer work to show he cares about its people.
“He’s avoiding coming back and debating the issues,” Zerban said. “And people aren’t happy. He has so much to answer for.”
Ryan’s congressional campaign calls Zerban’s accusations baseless.
“Voters in southern Wisconsin know Paul Ryan and what he stands for,” Ryan campaign spokesman Kevin Seifert said.
Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District covers the southeastern corner of the state, from Kenosha to Janesville, a city of 60,000 in the rolling prairies south of Madison, the state capital.
Thousands of people in Janesville and Kenosha lost their jobs in 2009 and 2010 when General Motors and Chrysler closed plants in the cities and the unemployment rate in Racine, Kenosha and Janesville remains well above the statewide rate of 7.3 percent.
Ryan, 42, grew up in Janesville and still makes his home here. He hasn’t just held the district’s seat – he has owned it. The only race where he failed to earn at least 60 percent of the vote was his first in 1998, when he got 57 percent.
Zerban, a 44-year-old, silver-haired chef who ran a catering business and served on the Kenosha County Board, decided to take on Ryan while he was protesting Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s contentious law stripping public workers of nearly all their union bargaining ability last year.
At first Zerban looked like he might make Ryan take him seriously. He raised $2.1 million, less than Ryan’s $4.9 million but enough to generate some respect. He built a platform based on campaign finance reform, congressional term limits and preserving Medicare and Social Security.
Then, on Aug. 10, everything changed with Romney’s choice. As Ryan embarked on his national campaign, the congressional race faded into the background, even in the district itself. A hand-written sign in the window of the GOP’s Janesville campaign office reads “Yes, Paul Ryan is running for Congress.”
Ryan’s campaign has consisted of a series of television commercials shot before Romney officially chose him. They recite Ryan’s campaign talking points on his plan to overhaul Medicare and on the need to control the national debt.
Zerban has tried to paint Ryan as aloof and out of touch. His latest television ad features people from the district saying they’re convinced Ryan doesn’t listen to them. Recently Zerban committed to spending an hour a day until the Nov. 6 election doing community service.
Zerban showed up last week at House of Mercy, a Janesville homeless shelter. He spent an hour preparing a room for an incoming family, stripping bed sheets and cleaning floors, before heading to his next stop at a meeting of retired United Auto Workers union members.
Zerban’s message has struck a chord with some voters in difficult straits.
Linda Wells-Toso, 61, who lives near the homeless shelter, said she worked as a nurse but had to quit to take in her 33-year-old daughter after she suffered a traumatic brain injury.
She’s worried Ryan’s fiscal proposals would make life even harder.
“Every day we balance how she can afford to live here. Are they going to cut her Medicaid? And he’s busy touting Ayn Rand crap,” Wells-Toso said, referring to the story of how Ryan read Rand’s works in college.
Ryan is clearly operating on a different level. The Secret Service has all but barricaded the streets leading to his expansive brick home in Janesville’s historic district. While Zerban worked in the homeless shelter, Ryan rallied the GOP faithful in Bristol, Va.
But his reputation as hometown-boy-made-good is so strong he might not even need to campaign in these parts.
“He’s been there for us,” said Margaret Delaney, a 65-year-old neighborhood volunteer. “He wants to serve, however he can do it. He’s been here long enough. People know who he is.”