Myra Adams: Reelecting Paul Ryan since 1998-Campaign firm loses 20-year client, provides insight into young candidate who became Speaker

Screenshot of Speaker Paul Ryan’s first ad as a 28-year-old congressional candidate in 1998.  Credit: Wilson Grand Communications


The year was 1998 when Paul Wilson, owner of the media campaign firm  Wilson Grand Communications, was tasked with electing a 28-year-old Republican named Paul Ryan to Congress from Wisconsin’s 1st congressional district that included Ryan’s hometown of Janesville.

Remarkably, Ryan and Wilson’s campaign partnership continued for the next two decades — through nine reelections — until April 11, when Speaker Ryan announced that he would not be on the ballot in November.

Anyone associated with politics knows that it is highly unusual for a member of Congress to retain the same campaign firm for 20 years — especially through two sets of quirky political circumstances. First, in 2012 Ryan’s name appeared twice on the ballot of his congressional district as VP on the Republican presidential ticket with Mitt Romney, and for reelection to his House seat. (Wilson called that Ryan’s “insurance policy.”)

Then, in 2016, Ryan faced his first congressional reelection as Speaker of the House — a delicate balance between serving the needs of local constituents while wearing the mantle of national leadership.

Now that Speaker Ryan is no longer running for reelection, I asked Wilson to shed some light on Paul Ryan “the candidate,” his political campaign strategy, and Ryan’s personal formula for success.

“The first 1998 campaign was by far the hardest,” said Wilson.

Wilson Grand’s first campaign ad for Paul Ryan was nicknamed “Graveyard.”   Watch it here.

“The three-way primary dissolved away as opponents recognized Ryan’s universal appeal. Democrat Lydia Spotsworth was well-funded, and the district tilted Democrat by two points at the time. It was a brawl,” Wilson exclaimed.

Normally “shy,” Paul Wilson agreed to answer a few questions about his long-time client.

Adams:  How did Paul Ryan change from when he first ran in 1998 until now? 

Wilson:  Paul Ryan changed very little from 1998 until today. Yes, his responsibilities became much greater. But, other than feeling scrunched for time, he applied the same care and precision to making a commercial. Ryan knew it was critically important. He would poll concepts and language. Long before a film shoot, he would study scripts and revise. A half hour before the camera turned on he would studiously practice his lines frequently asking for advice on how to improve his intonation. In short, he treated television and its power with the respect it deserved.

Adams:  Do you personally believe that Ryan made the right move by not running for reelection?

Wilson:  On a personal level, no because as an ad agency, Wilson Grand Communications loses a great client who believed in advertising and became very good at using the mediums of television and radio.

On a professional level, yes. Paul Ryan came to Congress with several defined goals. Number one among those goals was revising the tax code and providing a tax cut to make America more productive. He fulfilled his mission.  From the beginning 20 years ago, Speaker Ryan has always said, “I’m not staying in Congress forever.” I don’t think it surprised anyone on his team that after accomplishing one of his great goals it was time to move on.

Adams:  It is atypical for a candidate to retain the same campaign firm for 20 years. Why did Ryan stay with Wilson Grand Communications?

 Wilson:  We shared a common belief that advertising could be used to communicate very important ideas.  For example, early on we tackled health care showing how people in a community were charged vastly different amounts for the very same medical service. Another example,   involved filming Ryan walking in front of two tractors, one made in his hometown of Janesville and the other imported from Japan. He taught people how the trade laws were so out-of-whack that the tractor made in Japan was actually cheaper than the one made in Wisconsin.

Nearly ten years before he was Speaker of the House, in his commercials, Paul Ryan laid out a “Blueprint for America.”  He wrote it. He explained it. And eventually, he got to a position of power as House Speaker where he implemented it. Having an issue-oriented approach all those years kept constituents walking arm-in-arm with his ideas.   We championed his approach and created ads that explained his passionate ideas.

Here is that “Tractor” ad from 2008.

Adams: How will Washington remember Paul Ryan?

Wilson:  In the end, whether or not one agrees with Paul Ryan’s political philosophy or actions, his meteoric rise in the House of Representatives from age 28 to 48 is legendary. Ryan’s career should be studied in political science and campaign management classes. Lesson number one:

Ryan did not seek power. Power gravitated to him because he is a man of integrity. He is always loyal and respectful to his constituents and colleagues. Paul Ryan may be leaving Washington, but given his age, ability, and experience, his future looks very bright.