The Mystery Of Wisconsin’s District One

Andrew Sullivan —  Aug 15 2012 @ 2:37pm

by Gwynn Guilford

Michael Gerson thinks Ryan's Tea Party ties are a red herring more than they are kryptonite:

Ryan’s critics will attempt to make him out as the second coming of Michele Bachmann. In fact, they fear him more, because he is infinitely more serious. He represents not the inchoate frustration and nostalgia of the tea party but a developed, thoroughly modern conservative approach to governing.

Apt that he should mention Bachmann since, as Michelle Goldberg put it in an article Patrick's linked to earlier this week, "[O]n abortion and women’s health care, there isn’t much daylight between Ryan and…Michele Bachmann." (For more detail on Goldberg's point, there are plenty of lists out there enumerating Ryan's voting record.) But as Walter Russell Mead argues, Ryan equals buy-in for those Mormon-squeamish value voters out there:

The [Ryan] choice didn’t just define Romney; it energized the Republican base and did it in a way that works well for the ex-governor. Romney may be socially conservative, but because his personal views are rooted in a religious faith that many of the most zealous Republican social value voters deeply dislike, this connection can never make Republicans fall in love with him.

Beyond the question of whether Ryan will help energize the base lies a more vexing perplexity in Ryan's voter-block record. As Philip Klein points out, the congressman has consistently won not just independent but Dem votes:

Everybody should remember that Ryan doesn’t come from some sort of deeply conservative area, but a moderate district in the Midwest. C00k Political Report has ranked the district 218th in its partisan voting index out of 435 Congressional districts — in other words, it is right smack in the middle. Ryan been running on entitlement reform since 1998 and has been consistently attacked for wanting to destroy Medicare and Social Security, yet he’s won comfortably seven times. In 2008, his district went for Obama 51 percent to 48 percent, yet Ryan beat his Democratic challenger by 29 points (64 percent to 35 percent).

John Fund observes that even Ryan is confident in his own crossover appeal:

[I]f Ryan is an extremist and his proposals are so unpopular, how has he won election seven times in a Democratic district? His lowest share of the vote was 57 percent — in his first race. He routinely wins over two-thirds of the vote…. Ryan has pointed out to me that no Republican has carried his district for president since Ronald Reagan in 1984.

A radio segment by Patt Morrison digs into this mystery (my transcription):

Reporter Chuck Qurimbach: "His opponents…have been not particularly polished debaters over the years so he hasn't in a number of years had that candidate-versus-candidate debate experience."

Elsewhere in Morrison's radio interview, politician John Heckenlively, who ran against Ryan in 2010, distinguishes between the "aw, shucks" Wisconsin persona and the Washington "hard-nosed politician" that votes the party line 95% of the time. Adds Qirmbach, "He's an engaging fellow with a more conservative voting record than comes across in his demeanor." Steve Benen agrees:

Ryan is a congressional Republican, and nearly all congressional Republicans are very conservative on social issues. But that's why the details matter — the perception of Ryan as a budget wonk obscures his deep commitment to fighting cultural battles, and for that matter, even on Capitol Hill, Ryan is considered very far to the right, as evidenced by his sponsorship of a "Personhood"-style measure…. Given Mitt Romney's new-found interest in the culture war, it's worth realizing the Republican ticket's focus goes far beyond the budget and the economy.

Part of this might be because, as Kevin Drum points out, Republicans don't tend to tout their fetal politics much these days. Perhaps that's because, as we've covered in the past, Obama independents tend to be "younger, female and more secular" – not the types who would be endeared by a "Personhood" pol. Another possible advantage for Team Obama might be that, as Patrick noted over the weekend, despite Ryan's vaunted intra-Beltway profile, most voters don't have a clue who he is. That's a blank canvas that could be painted in Michele Bachmann's likeness as easily as it could be done in Reagan's.