MILWAUKEE (AP) — Paul Ryan came up short in his vice presidential bid, but he’s sure to remain a key leader of the Republican Party when he returns to Washington and the congressional seat he easily retained Tuesday night.

Ryan won re-election to the U.S. House seat representing southeastern Wisconsin that he has held since 1998, cruising to victory as he has in past elections by a comfortable margin. It was sure to be a hollow victory for Ryan, as he and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney lost their bid for the White House.

Even before he was tapped as Romney’s No. 2, Ryan was seen as a star within the Republican Party. As chairman of the powerful House Budget Committee, he gained prominence when he drew up an austere budget blueprint that would reshape Medicare and kept in place tax breaks soon set to expire.

He was challenged this year in the state’s 1st District by Democratic businessman Rob Zerban, whose grassroots campaign focused on his credentials as an entrepreneur, and Libertarian Keith Deschler. It was an uphill climb for both challengers.

Ryan crisscrossed the U.S. after Romney picked him as his running mate, stopping in Wisconsin for high-dollar campaign fundraisers and a handful of rallies across the state. Meanwhile, Zerban focused on introducing himself to voters in the district. The former Kenosha Board supervisor said he would fight for middle-class families where Ryan had failed them.

Zerban tried for weeks to get Ryan to agree to a debate, without success. And he raised less than half the money that Ryan brought in: The congressman raised $4.9 million compared to Zerban’s $2.1 million.

Zerban had hoped his campaign would benefit from the heightened scrutiny Ryan was under as a national candidate, but that never happened.

“We knew this was a tough race getting in,” Zerban said, adding that it was too early to say whether he’d challenge Ryan again in two years.

The 1st District stretches from the shores of Lake Michigan through industrial zones, bedroom communities and farm fields until it reaches Ryan’s hometown of Janesville to the west. The seat, which also includes some south Milwaukee suburbs, has been in Republican hands since 1995.

State law allowed Ryan, a 42-year-old married father of three, to run for Congress and vice president at the same time.

If he had won both races, Ryan would have had to resign from Congress. A special election would have been held to fill the House seat.

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