Politics & Policy

Crowded Field Runs Away from Boehner’s Legacy in Race to Replace Him

(Mark Wilson/Getty)

On March 15, Ohio’s eighth district will hold a special election for the seat John Boehner left vacant upon his resignation in October. And with just four days until the Republican primary, no obvious front-runner has emerged.

It’s unfamiliar territory for voters in this corner of Ohio, where the tapestry of farmland can morph into a traffic-clogged freeway in one quick spin. For 24 years, Boehner, the longstanding pride of Butler County, sailed through his re-elections with ease. But of the 15 Republicans battling for his open seat, not one has uttered the former speaker’s name.

The stakes are high. As Miami University political-science professor John Forren puts it, the contenders are not running “to succeed” John Boehner but instead to outflank his legacy from the right, a testament to the anti-establishment mood gripping the Republican party. That’s in large part owing to Donald Trump’s place at the top of the presidential field: Candidates are making an aggressive pitch to the grassroots in the hopes that it will help them pick up votes from among the massive crowds expected to turn out because of Trump. The House Freedom Caucus (HFC) is backing its own candidate in the primary, hoping to claim the first open seat of the 2016 cycle, making March 15 a referendum not only on Trump’s down-ballot impact, but also on the extent of the insurgent group’s newfound influence.

Those stakes fit squarely on the shoulders of Warren Davidson, the small-business owner and former Army Ranger who has garnered the backing of HFC chairman Jim Jordan. Davidson has built up the name recognition that operatives here say is essential in a wide-open field, targeting the Cincinnati and Dayton markets with television spots and leading the pack with $282,560 in cash on hand.

“Because we have 15 GOP candidates, none of them are coming in with the usual advantages of district name recognition, so it’s hard to even say who the front-runners are,” Forren says. But he notes that Davidson has emerged from the scrum as one of a few candidates with an “advertising edge.”   

Contenders are running to outflank Boehner’​s legacy from the right, a testament to the anti-establishment mood gripping the GOP.

That presence testifies to more than Davidson’s own willpower. The Freedom Caucus has made clear that it intends to sweep the scattering of open seats this year with like-minded candidates. The caucus’s super PAC, the House Freedom Fund, has accordingly flooded Davidson’s campaign with cash. That robust backing, along with the more symbolic fight to replace Boehner — the man the Freedom Caucus takes credit for dethroning — makes Davidson’s candidacy a test for the HFC’s presence in the next congressional term.

“This is the first open seat up this cycle, so we’re doing everything we can to win,” Jordan says. “The first one is always important. It just happens to be the former speaker’s seat.” He adds with a grin that there’s a “good chance” Davidson, if elected, would be invited to join the Freedom Caucus.

But the candidate trying to craft the most grassroots-friendly profile of the field is also the one who has the most help from Washington, a fact that’s drawing some fire from Davidson’s challengers. Club for Growth Action has boosted Davidson with nearly $1.06 million in media buys, including television spots that deem him “the conservative fighter for Congress,” and, most important, “not a political insider.” FreedomWorks PAC has gotten into the mix as well: In their endorsement statement, the group said that Davidson’s election would be the “icing on the cake” of Boehner’s resignation.

#share#Three candidates — Scott George, J. D. Winteregg, and Kevin White — released a statement on Monday bemoaning the influx of money from “outsider groups.” They slammed Club for Growth for its support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, questioning where Davidson’s “loyalties” might lie once elected. That candidates are denouncing Club for Growth and FreedomWorks — largely seen as the coveted duo of tea-party endorsers — as Washington players signifies how deeply rooted the grassroots sentiment is in this race.

The three candidates’ statement also rebukes another candidate — Ohio state representative Tim Derickson — for being backed by D.C.-based Right Way Initiative. Derickson is Davidson’s most formidable challenger, and he’s saturating the airwaves with ad buys that tout his backstory as a “third-generation dairy farmer.” One television spot, in which Derickson sports overalls in a cow-filled barn, splices discussion of his record in the state legislature — “cutting waste” — with scenes of shoveling manure.

Though he is trailing Davidson with just $75,514 in cash on hand, Derickson is helped by a slate of local endorsements, including from the Cincinnati Enquirer and all but one Butler County official. The paper called Derickson “a voice of reason” and slammed the Freedom Caucus — and, implicitly, Davidson — as seeking “to govern by brinkmanship.”

That local groundswell of support could tip the scales in favor of Derickson come Tuesday. Indeed, a glance at FEC reports reveals that the overwhelming bulk of Derickson’s donations come from Ohio, while Davidson’s support is far more national, undercutting his claims as the race’s true grassroots contender. But one former state representative suggests that Donald Trump could upend any calculations made in this race so far. With Trump’s name up-ballot, turnout is likely to increase — in which case an outsider profile may matter less than pure name recognition. And Davidson’s team is confident that, in this respect, they lead the way.

“The one thing that Trump brings to the presidential field is that interest in the outsider, and I think that will trickle down more to Warren [Davidson],” says Ann Becker, a Butler County tea-party organizer who volunteers for Davidson’s campaign. “It’s true that outside money does turn people off here. But a place like Club for Growth is not as alarming. And the reality is, people know who Warren is because of it.”

#related#Most observers continue to emphasize the toss-up nature of the race, intensified by Trump-induced turnout and the sheer number of candidates. But not lost on those observers is perhaps the broader significance of the primary: the closing of the curtain on Boehner’s quarter-century political reign, and the potential to replace him with the kind of candidate who proved to be his biggest headache during his final term in Washington.

“He was our speaker,” says Seth Morgan, a former state representative. “It was powerful to see the guy behind the president at the State of the Union and say, ‘Wow, that’s our guy.’ He was legendary.”

But Morgan, who has endorsed Davidson, says the political moment now calls for someone who can “recapture the imagination of this very conservative district.”

“I think voters are excited to start a new legacy here.”

— Elaina Plott is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.

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