At first glance, you might think Rob Zerban was a conservative. His family struggled to get by as he was growing up, but he went on to start two successful businesses, then sold them by the age of 40 with enough money to retire.
What makes Zerban different is that he’s a Democrat.
And, he’s running against one of the most formidable opponents in the country.
Zerban, of Kenosha, is challenging incumbent Republican Paul Ryan of Janesville in the Nov. 6 general election for Wisconsin’s 1st District Congressional seat.
Success or failure, says Zerban, will come from zeroing in on voters’ concerns over changes to Medicare in the Republican budget authored by Ryan.
In an interview this week with Walworth County Sunday, Zerban said Ryan’s plan to change Medicare (Ryan calls it premium support, Democrats call it a voucher program) would make voters think twice.
If enough of them do, the vote could swing Zerban’s way. But it won’t be easy. Republican support in the 1st Congressional District is strong, if the vote in the recent recall election is a guide.
There were some hot spots for Democrats in Rock and Kenosha counties, but overall, Gov. Scott Walker won by a comfortable margin.
Despite that, leaders of Democrats at both the state and national levels think that the Medicare issue will be a game changer.
For starters, Zerban supports eliminating the income cap and allowing the government to negotiate prices with drug companies.
Zerban didn’t have to get into this race, but those who thought he had the best chance of knocking off the incumbent encouraged him. “I’m a public servant, not a politician,” Zerban said.
What government decides to do or not to do is personal for Zerban.
He was raised by his mom, who benefited from programs that helped struggling families. She wouldn’t apply for food stamps, but did take advantage of programs that provided food, like surplus cheese. In school, Zerban says he was able to get free lunch and milk.
For those who say these social safety nets are really a hammock, Zerban says “that’s a bunch of bull.”
“Paul Ryan calls for an end to these very programs that I benefited from,” Zerban said.
He also is an unapologetic supporter of the Affordable Health Care act, often called Obamacare, and is among the camp that believes it didn’t go far enough. He promotes what he called Medicare for All, basically a single-payer plan built on the Medicare model.
Zerban says it’s not only a way to improve access to health care, but is one of his ideas to promote job growth.
“The cost of health insurance alone is one of the biggest deterrents to starting a business,” Zerban says. With the future of the Affordable Health Care act in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court, the chances of moving to single-payer remain slim. So in the meantime, are there areas that Zerban thinks he could work with Republicans if elected?
Zerban says yes. He points to his time on the Kenosha County Board, when he was able to work across the aisle.
Zerban knows not everyone will agree with him. “If they like Paul Ryan, they can vote to send him back,” he said.
Ryan and Zerban have said they’re not big fans of the amount of money coming in from outside groups. Zerban, however, thinks it might work in his favor. Ryan has raised nearly $4 million so far, while Zerban has raised nearly $1 million.
The recall race for governor showed there’s plenty of money available to pour into political races. If supporters of the Democrats see there’s potential for defeating Ryan, more money may come Zerban’s way. If it does, he may become the rare underdog to defeat an incumbent.