MILWAUKEE - Cheers erupted and people rose to their feet at the state Democratic Party Convention when Rob Zerban stepped to the microphone Saturday.
Zerban, a Kenosha County supervisor, is running against U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., in November 2012.
It's still 17 months before the next congressional election, but already both the state Democratic Party and the national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee are taking a serious interest in the 1st Congressional District, which includes Racine County. They're standing up behind Zerban, who is running for Ryan's seat.
"My opponent not only endorses the plan to end Medicare. He wrote the plan," Zerban said to a crowd of about 1,000 Saturday at the Milwaukee Hyatt. "If you elect me, I will not look you in the eyes and tell you I'm reducing the deficit while sliding tax breaks under the table to millionaires and billionaires."
The Democratic Party hasn't put much emphasis or financial support into defeating Ryan since he was first elected in 1998, said Mark Pienkos, chairman of the 1st Congressional District Democratic Party.
In the past, the race in the Wisconsin 1st has not been highly competitive. It appears next year will be different.
"I'm classifying this as a battle royale," Pienkos said.
Already, Zerban's campaign is getting national attention. DCCC Chairman Steve Israel publicly supported Zerban on MSNBC and in the Huffington Post, an online news source. At the state convention in Milwaukee, Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chairman Mike Tate praised Zerban highly as he introduced him.
"The 1st Congressional District is a Democratic district, and it's going to be a Democratic year, and I have every confidence that Rob Zerban will be the next member of Congress," Tate said
Saturday as applause filled the large conference room inside the Hyatt.
In an interview before the convention, Tate said: "It has not been a seat where we fielded strong candidates in the past."
That is what is different this time, Tate said.
"Rob brings a tremendous profile to this race ... couple that with Paul Ryan and his extremist plan. We could be seeing a perfect storm here."
As chairman of the House Budget Committee, Ryan, a Republican from Janesville, proposed significantly changing Medicare.
During Zerban's speech he promised: "If you elect me to Congress I will never privatize Medicare. Privatizing Medicare essentially eliminates it."
Ryan has said in past interviews that Democrats wrongly characterize his plan and that they are using his plan to scare seniors. He did not return calls for this report.
"Congressman Ryan's focus right now is on doing his job representing his employers in Congress and preventing a national debt crisis, not on campaigning for the next election," Susan Jacobson, Ryan's campaign manager, said in a statement.
In the 2010 election, Ryan had no opponent until John Heckenlively of Racine joined the race a few months before the election.
"I jumped in really, effectively, at the last minute because no one was running," Heckenlively said.
In contrast, Tate actively worked to recruit Zerban. He knew Zerban was considering running in the last election and he talked to him again at the beginning of this year about running again.
Zerban is a Kenosha County Board supervisor and has built his own business, Tate said. "We will do everything in our power to make sure this is a top race," Tate said.
Zerban said in an interview with The Journal Times that he has already received financial support for his campaign, but he would not elaborate on the amount. His first campaign finance report will not come out until July. Ryan already has $3 million, according to his most recent report filed with the Federal Election Commission in April.
"We'll raise the money we need to be able to compete in this election," Zerban said. "We are in this to win this."