Angela Cunningham, left, Josh Pade and Roger Polack are vying for the Democratic nomination to represent Wisconsin's 1st Congressional District. The seat is currently held by Janesville Republican Bryan Steil, Paul Ryan's handpicked successor. (Photos courtesy of campaigns)
Angela Cunningham, left, Josh Pade and Roger Polack are vying for the Democratic nomination to represent Wisconsin's 1st Congressional District. The seat is currently held by Janesville Republican Bryan Steil, Paul Ryan's handpicked successor. (Photos courtesy of campaigns)

The 1st Congressional District race is shaping up to be tougher than 2018

This article was originally published on UpNorthNews, Wisconsin.

Nearly two years ago with a bombshell announcement, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan looked like he was being chased out of office and his seat in Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District looked to be in play for Democrats.

One election cycle later, Ryan’s handpicked successor, Bryan Steil, looks to be in a strong position heading into a challenge from one of three Democrats who have announced they will challenge the Janesville Republican.

Republicans have held the 1st District since 1995, Steil was elected by a near-landslide in 2018, and Donald Trump easily won the district in 2016. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the district “solid Republican” and does not count the seat among its list of competitive races.

After redistricting in 2010, the 1st Congressional District is “less of a swing district than it used to be,” Carthage College political science professor Jerald Mast wrote in an email to UpNorthNews.

“For Democrats to have a realistic shot at the 1st CD, the state legislature has to redistrict it in a way that makes it more competitively balanced. Or, they need to run a solid candidate in a year where turnout on the Democratic side is very high, while turnout on the Republican side is down,” Mast said. He expects high turnout from both parties this year.

The district includes all of Racine and Kenosha counties, most of Walworth County and parts of Rock, Waukesha and Milwaukee counties. Its three largest cities are Racine, Kenosha and Janesville.

Long odds have not kept Racine native and former federal intelligence official Roger Polack; Kenosha native and former gubernatorial candidate Josh Pade; and Kenosha attorney Angela Cunningham, from launching bids to topple Steil, who is wrapping up his first term.

All three are targeting Steil’s voting record, which has seen him side with Trump more than 95 percent of the time, according to ongoing analysis by the nonpartisan website FiveThirtyEight.

“(Steil) can’t just hide behind ‘I’m going to be a breath of fresh air’ or whatever, when he’s anything but,” said Polack, 37. “He’s sort of continued on Paul Ryan’s tradition of being out for himself and for corporations.”

Steil has consistently toed the party line, voting against impeaching Trump, against allowing the government to negotiate lower prescription drug prices, against raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, and against overturning Trump’s emergency declaration for border wall funding.

“We don’t need another rubber stamp for what the Republicans want to do,” said Pade, 39.

Steil’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

It’s questionable if Steil’s record will matter much to voters. Name recognition and an established presence in the district give Steil a huge head start, Michael Hansen, a University of Wisconsin-Parkside assistant political science professor, wrote in an email.

“The incumbent advantage cannot be overstated,” Hansen said. 

Additionally, Steil’s status as a freshman congressman who has done little to stand out from his Republican colleagues could work in his favor, Hansen said. “He has not had to take any action of consequence or be a deciding vote in a situation that would impact his constituency to the extent other members might have had to,” Hansen wrote.

Cunningham, Pade and Polack all focus on standard progressive issues such as access to quality health care, quality public education and affordable college, but each does have a signature issue.

Cunningham, 40, stands out for her focus on ending mass incarceration. As a black woman, she is the only candidate for either party who is not a white man. Mass incarceration is listed as one of the five main issues on her campaign website, something neither Pade nor Polack mention on their sites. A 2013 University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee study found that the state incarcerates black men at the highest rate in the nation. She said she has seen the effects of it firsthand both personally and in her work as a former prosecutor and current defense attorney.

“We got to the point where we got now because of federal laws and incentives that states jumped on board in order to get funding,” Cunningham said. “I’m of the opinion that if federal law goes in the opposite direction and incentivizes states going the opposite direction to reduce mass incarceration, that states will follow suit.”

Pade’s campaign website is almost entirely dedicated to health care. He says he is passionate about the issue because while he was growing up, his family lost quality health insurance after his father’s death. Social Security ran out when Pade’s younger sister turned 16, prompting him into action to provide for his family by working in the grocery industry.

“When we lost Social Security, I drove to Onalaska and asked for a job in management,” he said. “I was 19 years old and thrust into having people report to me, having to work in the business world — grocery retail is a very tight-margin business — and I learned leadership.” He eventually worked his way through law school.

Polack, who has spent much of his adult life in Washington D.C. and abroad as an intelligence officer, pays careful attention to federal-level issues and foreign affairs. Perhaps the most impressive notch in his belt comes from spending 20 months in Afghanistan between 2010-12 as an analyst and deputy director of the Afghan Threat Finance Cell. His work there involved studying sources of the Taliban’s income to try to disrupt its supply chain.

“That’s all work that I’ve done at the federal level, and (it’s) hugely complex work,” Polack said. “My background lends itself to working on congressional issues and diving right in once elected and being a key member.”

The deadline for other candidates to file papers is June 1. The primary election is Aug. 11.