You can’t really say that the people of Ohio’s 8th Congressional District – an overwhelmingly Republican stretch of land – despised their congressman, former House Speaker John Boehner of West Chester.
After all, they elected him to Congress every two years from 1990 through 2014, never with less than 60 percent of the vote. In 2012, the Democrats in the district didn’t even bother to field a candidate. They looked at it and said, what’s the point?
But there were powerful forces in Washington who wanted Boehner gone as House speaker – his fellow Ohioan, Rep. Jim Jordan of Urbana, who heads the House Freedom Caucus, which thought Boehner was weak in dealing with the Democrat in the White House; and conservative groups like the extremely well-funded Club for Growth, which was a thorn in Boehner’s side throughout his speakership.
Last fall, the pressure became too much and Boehner not only resigned from the speakership; he resigned from the 8th Congressional District seat he had held for nearly a quarter of a century.
And that meant there would be a special primary election and a special general election to fill out his unexpired term. And a second election this fall for a full two-year term.
It brought a small army of GOP candidates out of the woodwork by the Dec. 16 filing deadline, all eager for a chance at something that had been an impossible dream since 1990 – a chance to be a U.S. House member from Ohio’s 8th House District.
One thing became clear as these 15 Republicans began racing around the six-county district in an effort to win last Tuesday’s primary – each and every one of them, even those who already hold elected office, were running as “Washington outsiders,” as candidates who despised the culture of Washington and vowed to go there to change it.
One thing, though, that most people would not have guessed back in December was this – that, in the end both the primary for the special election and this fall’s election was won by a person who was, for all intents and purposes, a complete unknown in politics – Warren Davidson of Troy in Miami County.
Davidson clearly had a good resume. He’d never spent any substantial time in public office, except two years as a township trustee, which barely counts. He is a graduate of West Point and a former Army Ranger with a distinguished military record. He is a family man, with a wife and two children. And he is a successful businessman in his home county.
And he had jumped into the middle of a primary race that was going to get national attention simply because it was an election to replace John Boehner.
Organizations like the Club for Growth and individuals like U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan of Urbana looked at the field, looked at the resumes, and came to one conclusion: Davidson’s our guy.
The Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign donations and spending on its website, opensecrets.org, found that about $2.5 million had been spent by outside groups – outside the 8th District that is – for and against candidates in the 8th District race.
That’s more outside money than in any other House primary in the country.
Davidson himself was somewhat surprised by suddenly being the object of national attention.
“It was kind of amazing to me to see the national interests get involved in the race, both for me and against me,’’ Davidson told WVXU. “I wasn’t planning on getting in the race, but I looked at the field and decided this was something I could do because I felt I had a different kind of experience than the others.”
Davidson said it was “a new experience for me, having a group run ads attacking me.”
But, in the end, the attacks didn’t matter. All that mattered was Davidson’s “outsider” status and the massive help he received from outside the district.
“By and large,’’ Davidson said, “it’s a good time in politics to not be an officeholder.”
Davidson ended up with 33 percent of the vote in the 15-candidate field. He was followed by two candidates who do hold significant elected offices – State Rep. Tim Derickson of Butler County’s Hanover Township with 24 percent and State Sen. Bill Beagle of Tipp City in Miami County with 20 percent.
He’ll run against Democrat Corey Foister, a 25-year-old from West Chester and Jim Condit Jr., who is running as a Green Party candidate, in the June 7 special election and the Nov. 8 general election.
But in this heavily Republican district, winning the GOP primary was the next best thing to punching a ticket to Washington.
The outside money may not be necessary in the fall, but it was crucial to Davidson’s success in Tuesday’s primary.
Here’s how the outside money broke down:
About $1.1 million was spent promoting Davidson, much of it by the Club for Growth. You can watch one of the Club for Growth ads here. About $293,000 was spent on ads opposing Davidson, most of it spent by a Super PAC called Defending Main Street, run by former Ohio Republican congressman Steve LaTourette as a counter to the Club for Growth. You can watch a Defending Main Street ad slamming Davidson here.
Derickson had about $919,000 spent in support of his candidacy, almost all of it by a group called Right Way Initiative and the Credit Union National Association.
It is not at all surprising, particularly in U.S. House races, that the candidate with the most money wins primary elections.
The U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), a long-time consumer advocacy group, released a report the day after Tuesday’s primary showing that 91 percent of the House candidates who had the most money won their races.
That was certainly the case in the Ohio 8th District.
Davidson raised slightly over $500,000 on his own, while Beagle raised $353,610. And, of course, on top of the money Davidson raised for himself, there was the $1.1 million in outside money spent on his behalf.
Chris MacKenzie, a spokesman for PIRG, said it is not at all surprising that the Club for Growth and other Washington-based Super PACs would get involved in a congressional primary in Ohio.
“It is a very conservative district,’’ MacKenzie said. “Club for Growth is obviously not an Ohio organization. But they have an interest in building their power in the district.”
Mack Mariani, associate professor and chair of the political science department at Xavier University, said it was clear that “the professional politicians, Derickson and Beagle, split the vote and that allowed Davidson, with a pretty broad coalition of support, to come in. For the Club for Growth, which had no use for Boehner, this was sort of like spiking the ball in the end zone after a touchdown.”
Davidson won, Mariani said, “because he was able to gobble up 33 percent of the ‘outsider’ vote. And, clearly, this district was looking for an outsider.”
Davidson, when speaking to WVXU, was careful to praise Boehner for his quarter of a century of service, but made it clear he is nothing like John Boehner.
“I think people in the 8th district had a lot of pride in the Speaker of the House being from their district,’’ Davidson said. “But with John Boehner being speaker, he had a lot of responsibilities; and people here just wanted somebody to be their representative.
“I hope to be that representative.”