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After a hard week of campaigning, Rob Zerban, a retired businessman seeking the Wisconsin House seat long held by Paul Ryan, was ready to relax. It was a Friday night, and he took his staff to see the Will Ferrell comedy "The Campaign." As the theater lights dimmed, they each powered down their cellphones.
The night was August 10, and it was just moments before news would break that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney was planning to announce Ryan as his running mate.
Zerban sat in the darkness, with nary a clue that his entire campaign was about to change.
As the credits rolled, Zerban reached for his phone. It was packed with texts, voice mail, alerts and emails. Sifting through the messages, he discovered that he would no longer be running an ordinary campaign for an ordinary House seat. As of that moment, he would be challenging the Republican candidate for vice president.
He left the theater and drove to his campaign headquarters in Kenosha to talk about a new strategy to turn Wisconsin's 1st District blue—something that hasn't happened in 17 years. "We all went back to the office and formulated the plan," Zerban told Yahoo News.
Even during the period before Romney tapped Ryan that August night, Zerban faced a daunting battle against the House Budget Committee chairman who has had a lock on his seat since 1999. Ryan's Republican budget plan, which proposes an ambitious overhaul of the nation's Medicare program, has turned him into the standard-bearer of the Republican Party even before the presidential primary season began last year. His wonky number crunching and well-received budget—by Republicans, that is—have pitted him head-to-head against President Barack Obama.
Going into the race in 2011, Zerban knew taking down Ryan would be no small feat. Since Ryan first joined the House in his late 20s, he has trounced all competition. And the Republican darling has received no less than 63 percent of the vote every election cycle since 2000. A Public Opinion Strategies poll conducted by the Ryan campaign in September showed the incumbent ahead of Zerban 58-33 percent. Still, Ryan's district isn't necessarily a Republican stronghold. The area supported Obama in 2008, but voted for former President George W. Bush in 2004.
In recent years, Ryan's national exposure has allowed him to build a formidable war chest with donations pouring in nationwide. As of his last financial disclosure filed at the end of September, Ryan's congressional campaign reported a flush $4 million cash on hand. And that was before he joined the national Republican ticket.
While Ryan might have the star power, Zerban is no token candidate or Democratic placeholder. Unlike Ryan's former Democratic challengers, Zerban actually has a fundraising apparatus in place, hauling in more than $1.7 million for his campaign so far. The number is nowhere near Ryan's fundraising cache, but considering that the most any candidate has ever raised against Ryan is about $150,000, Zerban is the closest threat Ryan has had throughout his incumbency. In the past quarter, Zerban outraised Ryan, $770,000 to $567,000.
"He's mounting a credible campaign," said Ryan campaign spokesman Kevin Seifert of Zerban. "They're at the parades just like we are, but I know it's not going to be enough. There's not one objective number that indicates that this guy is within fighting distance."
Although the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is not currently spending in the district, Zerban relies on backing from the Progressives United, a political action committee founded by former Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold, and the liberal Progressive Change Campaign Committee. "Most of his money is coming from out of state," said Ryan spokesman Seifert. "Rather than organic support behind him coming from the district, you've seen out-of- state progressives and staunchly Democratic interest groups are donating to support him in an effort to knock off Paul [Ryan]."
Fellow Democrats recognize the David and Goliath element to the campaign, and they respect Zerban for entering the race. When Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz realized who Zerban was during a visit to Milwaukee last summer, she threw her arms around him and thanked him for taking on Ryan. During a recent visit to Capitol Hill, people were excited to meet the guy challenging Ryan. "I think I've earned a lot of respect from many of them," Zerban said.
But it's name recognition that still haunts Zerban. The Ryan campaign, which is spending on television ads for the race, hasn't mentioned Zerban in any of its commercials. Despite running against one of the most high-profile Republicans in the country, Zerban is still a relative unknown; few have heard his name, even in his home state—something he's trying to change.
Robert Thomas Zerban was born in Belleville, Illinois, a small town just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. For part of his childhood, his family relied on government assistance programs for food. As an adult, he discovered a passion for cooking and graduated from the elite Culinary Institute of America in New York, receiving financial assistance from federally backed Pell Grants and Stafford Loans, programs he intends to stop Republicans from cutting if elected. Zerban went on to start two successful food service and catering companies, which he sold in 2007 and 2008 before being elected to local office as the Kenosha County Board supervisor. While he is relying on a nationwide fundraising effort, his entrepreneurial pursuits gave him the financial security to retire in his 40s.
In 2011, Zerban joined thousands of union protesters in the Madison statehouse to demonstrate against Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker's initiative to ban collective bargaining for public-sector unions. It was there, he said, that he made the decision to run against Ryan. "My wife is a teacher in the state," said Zerban. "I was with her when I received a call from Mike Tate, the chair of the Democratic Party."
He sought counsel from Cornelia, his wife. "Take a look around," she said, according to Zerban. "This is what you have when you have the wrong people running for the wrong reasons. And if you decide you want to do this, I support you 200 percent." With her on board, Zerban launched his bid.
Zerban describes himself as a "pro-growth liberal," and his policy stances on issues ranging from gay marriage to corporate tax rates indeed place him among the more liberal members of the Democratic Party. He intends to join the Congressional Progressive Caucus if elected, a group with nearly 80 Democratic members and the largest Democratic caucus in the House.
Had he been in office in 2010, Zerban would have been one of the voices urging Obama to make the federal health care law even more expansive. He supports a nationwide federal health care system—proponents call it "Medicare for all"—that would offer coverage to every citizen from cradle to grave. While he would have ultimately voted for Obama's health care overhaul, it "didn't go far enough," he told Yahoo News.
"We have the existing infrastructure in place, and I will tell you as a small-business man, I would have gladly paid a higher contribution into Medicare to make sure my employees could take advantage of that system now," Zerban said. "If we increased the people in the risk pool and include healthier populations and adjust the set Medicare contribution, we could make it solvent for generations to come. We don't need to turn it into a voucher program."
He also supports strict campaign finance restrictions that would end the system of candidate donations as we know it. All campaigns would be publicly funded under his plan, and political television ads would be banned.
"Everybody gets the same amount, they can't spend a dime more," Zerban said. "If they're caught breaking the rules they're off the ballot. We also have to outlaw independent expenditures, and I'm even in favor of outlawing television advertising for campaigns. That's how far I would go."
When talking about a budget plan, Zerban said the proposal put forth by the House Progressive Caucus embodies his values most. One of the most liberal blueprints the House voted on earlier this year, the plan would hike current income tax rates to Clinton-era levels, raise the tax rate for those earning more than $1 million annually to 45 percent, impose a 65 percent tax on estates over $500 million, implement a national health insurance program, cut spending on defense and spend $1.45 trillion on a jobs and infrastructure program.
"I feel it was the one that had the most sound decisions in how to move the economy and the country forward as a blueprint for the budget," Zerban said.
Zerban supports term limits on members of Congress that would keep them from serving more than 12 years in each chamber. Even if it doesn't become law, he would apply the standard to himself if elected and restrict his tenure to no more than six House terms and two in the Senate.
On social issues, Zerban would support a federal law making same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states, and he would continue legal access to abortion services. He also wants to decriminalize marijuana for nonviolent users and legalize it for medical purposes.
"In medical uses most definitely," he said about legalizing marijuana. "And decriminalizing it to a point where we're not penalizing somebody for a minor infraction of the law and sending them to jail and making them a hardened criminal. These are not productive and don't help our society."
When discussing policy, Zerban speaks authoritatively about his beliefs and relies refreshingly little on clichés to express where he stands. It's a quality that makes him not unlike his opponent, Ryan, who has taken his own share of lumps for writing the Republican budget proposal.
In the meantime, Zerban has challenged Ryan to local debates, requests that are unlikely to be fulfilled. He continues to campaign throughout the district, and he launched his first television ad last week that challenges Ryan's Medicare overhaul plan.
While Ryan is not unbeatable, Republicans consider the seat a secure one as long as the incumbent holds it. But, the hard truth for Democrats in Wisconsin's 1st District is that Zerban's best chances for joining the new crop of freshmen in the House next year may rest on the success of the Republican presidential ticket. A vice presidential win for Ryan could seal Zerban's fate: While Zerban would still have to run in another election it would most likely be easier than the one he's in now.