Associated PressRep. Paul Ryan, the GOP vice-presidential contender, talks to supporters Tuesday in Lakewood, Colo.
RACINE, Wis.The southeastern Wisconsin district that is home to Rep. Paul Ryan should be risky terrain for the conservative Republican. It is packed with blue-collar families and union workers in a state that until recently was reliably Democratic.
But Mr. Ryan, Mitt Romney's recently minted running mate, has coasted to re-election by huge margins since he first was elected in 1998. It is a tribute to a winning personal style and deep family roots in the region, supporters say, along with a big campaign war chest that has helped scare off serious opponents.
Most of all, his allies say, Mr. Ryan has benefited from a quality in short supply among today's GOP: a brand of Reaganesque optimism reminiscent of Mr. Ryan's mentor, supply side icon Rep. Jack Kemp. Timeline: Paul Ryan's Life and Career
When he first ran for Congress in 1998, Mr. Ryan kept his distance from the GOP's campaign to impeach President Bill Clinton. During later campaigns, Mr. Ryan was so companionable with his Democratic opponent, Jeffrey Thomas, that they car-pooled to campaign events. Today, even constituents who don't support his Medicare and Social Security plans have voted for him.
But the new national attention on Mr. Ryan could prompt some constituents to look more closely at his complex and controversial proposals to revamp the government entitlement programs.
"Now that he's hit the spotlight, and his arcane expertise is simplified by the media, the questions are being framed,'' said Georgia Duerst-Lahti, a political scientist at Beloit College in Beloit, Wis. "Also, the important swing vote in the district will start to ask more questions.''
Still, Jeanne Howe, a real-estate agent who lives in the village of Caledonia along Lake Michigan, has voted for Mr. Ryan despite reservations about his proposals for Social Security and Medicare. She said she appreciates his positive demeanor. "He never seems to get angry," she said.
The question now is whether this political capital translates to a national campaign. The 42-year-old Mr. Ryan is heading into a battle far more competitive than any of his House races with none of the benefit of being a hometown favorite. Democrats will try to shred the Republican presidential ticket with criticism of Mr. Ryan's proposals to cut the federal deficit.
In the absence of serious competition, Democrats say Mr. Ryan has been insulated from serious local scrutiny of his policies.
"His philosophy has never been fully debated in his district," said former Rep. David Obey (D., Wis.). "He does not practice a mean brand of politics; it's just his policies that are mean."
Mr. Ryan's district today is bordered by south Milwaukee on the northeast, Lake Michigan to the east and the Illinois border to the south. To the west it includes Janesville, the congressman's hometown. It encompasses the older industrial cities of Kenosha and Racine.
The three latter cities, which have struggled with a loss of manufacturing jobs, have been viewed as traditional Democratic strongholds. Racine, which has one of the state's highest unemployment rates at 9.2%, has seen factories close. Outside downtown Janesville sits a huge General Motors Co. plant that shut in 2008.
Democrats, frustrated they don't do better in the congressional district, argue that GOP policies backed by Mr. Ryanbudget cuts, trade agreements and othershave contributed to the area's troubles. They nonetheless have failed to mount a serious challenge in the district, which for years was represented by Democrat Les Aspin. It now leans Republican but has voted for the Democratic presidential candidate in four of the last five elections, the exception being 2004.
In 2008, when Barack Obama won the district by 51% to 47%, Mr. Ryan trounced his opponent with 64% of the vote. He has drawn more than 60% of the vote every election after his first, highly competitive election in 1998, when he won an underdog race against Democrat Lydia Spotswood.
This year, Mr. Ryan is facing a more spirited challenge from Democratic Kenosha County Supervisor Rob Zerban, who is focusing his campaign on Mr. Ryan's Medicare plan. Under Wisconsin law, Mr. Ryan will appear on the ballot for his House seat and as Mr. Romney's running mate.
Mr. Ryan's campaigns have been bolstered by his strong personal base in Janesville, where the multibranch Ryan family has deep roots and high visibility. His great-grandfather founded a construction business there in 1884 that now is run by Mr. Ryan's cousins.
The congressman returns home whenever possible and, until he got involved in the Romney campaign, he went to great lengths to avoid political travel that would keep him away from his wife, Janna, and their three young children.
"He outworks anybody I know," said Mike Theo, president of the Wisconsin Realtors Association, who said candidate Ryan in 1998 drove to Madison to ask why he hadn't won the group's endorsement. Mr. Theo said it was mostly because Mr. Ryan looked even younger than his 28 years. Write to Janet Hook at firstname.lastname@example.org and Mark Peters at email@example.com
A version of this article appeared August 15, 2012, on page A4 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Ryan Has Crossover Appeal at Home.