The comparisons between Bryan Steil and Paul Ryan are easy to draw. In addition to their shared Janesville connection, the two project political personas that are earnest and ideas-focused, studious yet down-to-earth. The Associated Press even noticed a passing physical resemblance. But while Steil has eagerly accepted Ryan’s endorsement and support, he’s not exactly leaning into the comparison. “I think of myself as a Bryan Steil Republican,” he dodged when I asked where he fits into a party that counts both Ryan and Trump as leaders.
Yet even when he deflects a question, Steil can’t help but sound a little bit like the speaker, who has spent the better part of two years trying, with occasional success, to avoid being drawn into fights with the president. Over the course of a 30-minute interview, Steil repeatedly resisted efforts to draw out policy differences between himself and Ryan or himself and Trump. He also resisted saying whether he would serve as more of a check on the president than the man he wants to succeed. Instead, he kept turning the conversation back to a contrast he welcomed much more—the one between him and Bryce. “The choice that we’re looking at is a true Bernie Sanders progressive-left vision, which is my opponent, versus a pro-growth alternative,” he told me. “That’s what I’m focused on.”
Read: Paul Ryan doesn’t want to fight with Trump.
Steil seems to be leaving attacks on Bryce’s personal history to outside groups such as the Congressional Leadership Fund. “I think what disqualifies him are his far-left policy positions,” he said. “I’ve been very clear and focused on the policy side. To me, that’s the focus of the campaign, not his other personal problems.”
Steil is more explicitly embracing Ryan as a model when he talks about his relationship with the First Congressional District, where the speaker’s visibility and easygoing demeanor won him votes over the years from plenty of people—especially in Democratic Janesville—who disagreed with his conservative politics. “I think uniquely so, in comparison to other congressional districts, people will say that they know Paul Ryan, so what’s fun for me is going out and meeting folks every day,” Steil told me. Ryan’s main congressional office occupies a huge storefront in the center of town, and shopkeepers throughout the commercial district talked about Ryan and his wife, Janna, as frequent and friendly visitors. The owner of a local cheese shop said the speaker would annually buy dozens of pounds for his congressional office.
For years, voters in Janesville reelected Ryan because they liked him personally or, in some cases, because there wasn’t much competition. Now, with him off the ballot, they have a choice for the first time in a while. Illustrating the difference, two women I spoke to, who were having lunch by the river in Janesville, said they had voted regularly for Ryan, but were likely to support the Democrat this year. Both declined to give their names because they were friends with Ryan’s family, and both said they were concerned with Bryce, citing in particular the report about his delinquency on child-support payments. But they disliked Trump more—one called him “a racist, ignorant jerk.”