JANESVILLE, Wis. -- Democrats are looking to voters like Lenore Green to help defeat Rep. Paul Ryan next year.
Sipping a coffee at a farmer's market down the street from Ryan's hometown office, the 76-year-old retired teacher said she voted for the Wisconsin Republican last time. "I don't agree with everything he's doing, but he is trying," she said.
But Green finds the debate over Ryan's plan to turn Medicare into a voucher system confusing. "It should stay a government program," the former teacher said. She's "suspicious" of the impact the House Budget Chairman's proposal could have on the health insurance program for the elderly and disabled.
"It could affect my vote" in 2012, Green said.
This Wisconsinite is typical of older voters who dislike Ryan's plan. Green doesn't know much about his would-be Democratic challenger, Kenosha County Supervisor Rob Zerban, but she's eager to learn more.
Most Democrats on the ballot next year will run against the GOP plan for Medicare. Only Zerban will go mano-a-mano against the guy who "wrote the plan," as the Wisconsin Democrat put it to an ecstatic crowd at Saturday's state party convention.
"People see this as very extreme," Zerban told The Huffington Post in an interview in Milwaukee the following day. "What gives me the most confidence that I will be able to unseat him is that this budget plan is being rejected completely all around the country."
After the GOP's surprise loss in a special election in the much-redder 26th District of New York, Democrats declared Ryan's plan had put 100 Republican-held seats in play. First among them: The one belonging to the chairman of the House Budget Committee.
Zerban had already launched the website Hands Off My Grandma! when the New York election convinced state and national party leaders that the Kenosha official had the best chance to defeat Ryan since the Republican was first elected to Congress in 1998.
"Nothing would be sweeter" for Democrats than knocking off Ryan, said Kyle Kondik, an analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, in an email. "This race has symbolic importance to Democrats, but Republicans know that and will protect Ryan if things begin to look dicey."
Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate told HuffPost Tuesday that Ryan is "the single largest liability for the Republican Party unless Sarah Palin runs for president." He predicted tons of money would flow into the race from both sides of the political divide.
Paul Lindsay of the National Republican Congressional Committee downplayed the congressman's vulnerability. "Paul Ryan has weathered numerous tough elections in this swing district for a reason, and he will do so again," he said.
As for Ryan, he's gone on record saying he is "fine" with losing his seat because saving the country "from fiscal ruin" is more important than winning reelection.
Not that Medicare is the only issue likely to fuel huge turnout next year. Republican Gov. Scott Walker's battle with Wisconsin's public employee unions over collective bargaining has galvanized state Democrats. They hope to add a Walker recall petition to the November 2012 ballot to bring out even more like-minded voters attracted to the polls by a presidential year and an open Senate race.
Walker and Ryan "both have agendas that the public is rejecting," said Zerban, previewing the talking points Wisconsin Democrats will likely use every chance they get.
An Illinois native who moved to a lake shore condo in Kenosha in 2004, the 42-year-old Zerban started out as a Republican. He still recalls what a "big deal" it was in high school when he had his photo taken with Rep. Phil Crane (R-Ill.).
But after studying at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and working on cruise ships plying the Eastern seaboard, "my understanding of the world broadened from a small town perspective," Zerban said. "I started to see how the Democratic Party advocated for human concerns as opposed to corporate concerns."
Zerban built a dining service business catering to suburban Chicago corporations. The 45 people employed by his firm were all provided with health insurance, he often notes. He sold it three years ago to get into politics.
A sailboat racer concerned about pollution in the Great Lakes, Zerban canvassed for the League of Conservation Voters. He was elected to the Kenosha County Board of Supervisors in 2008.
Zerban weighed running against Ryan last year but changed his mind, a "good decision" given the electoral tsunami that tossed House Democrats from power. But when Tate called in February, as thousands of workers surrounded the state capitol in Madison, he knew the time was right.
Ryan's 1st Congressional District stretches along the Illinois border from industrial Racine to the rolling farms of Rock County. Republicans, who control the state legislature, are expected to use redistricting to make it more red, pulling it west away from the bluer communities along the shores of Lake Michigan like Zerban's Kenosha. No matter: The U.S. Constitution says Zerban would still be legally eligible to run for the seat as long as he lives in Wisconsin.
As constituted today, the 1st is a swing district. It went for George W. Bush in 2004 and then narrowly for Obama four years later. In 2010, Ryan got 68 percent against a late-entering and little-known challenger. He has never tallied less than 63 percent in six re-election bids against token opposition.
But next year may be different. Zerban is expected to partially self-fund his campaign, but he will also get plenty of help from Democrats across the country.
"There is a natural, national fundraising appeal of people who will give $5 and $10 to help defeat Paul Ryan and the Ryan agenda," said Tate, who got encouragement when he visited Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee headquarters in Washington on Tuesday.
Whether Ryan wins an eighth term won't be determined on Capitol Hill, though. More relevant may be places like Clinton, a small village not far from Janesville. Regulars at the Clinton Kitchen diner are mostly Republican farmers and small business owners who share their views each morning over plates of biscuits and gravy with a fried egg on top.
Ryan "is trying to do what's right," said Glen Hahn, 84, a retired farmer who echoes many in the district's rural outposts. He's got no problem with Ryan's Medicare plan. "We've got to do something, but nobody wants to take a cut. It's take it away from somebody else, but don't take mine. Something's got to be done, or our kids will never get out of debt."
Voters like Hahn are why Kondik finds it difficult to imagine Ryan will lose. But if he does, the University of Virgina analyst said, "it will be because there is a Democratic tidal wave: A tidal wave that will have been created in no small part by Ryan’s budget proposal."
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