It was one of the tea party’s few highlights in Tuesday’s congressional primaries. But laying claim to former GOP House speaker John Boehner’s old seat (in all likelihood) is a big one, both for the bragging rights and the momentum it gives House conservatives in their ongoing fight to purify their party ideologically.
Warren Davidson, a businessman and former Army Ranger, won a 15-way Republican primary Tuesday in the special election for Ohio’s 8th Congressional District. The tea party candidate rather easily bested more moderate candidates, including two state lawmakers, in a campaign that quickly became ground zero for the party’s ongoing identity struggle in the House that Boehner used to run. The winner of a June special election will serve out the rest of 2016 in Boehner’s seat, and in such a deep red congressional district, that winner is likely to be Davidson.
Let’s step back and assess why this matters. Sure, adding one lawmaker to the ranks of the hard-line House conservatives who have made life difficult for their moderate, pro-business Republican colleagues won’t single-handedly change the outcomes of most intra-party dramas. Davidson also won in large part thanks to a crowded primary, taking less than one-third of the vote.
But you can imagine how good it feels for the conservatives to get to say they took the former speaker’s seat, especially after spending the past few years directly challenging Boehner and, eventually, forcing him out. Congressional conservatives and their outside backers can now reasonably claim they won two battles against Boehner: They played a role in forcing his retirement last fall, and then they won the seat he vacated this spring.
Boehner’s successor, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., is also trying to work with or around an estimated 30 to 40 hard-line conservatives who are expressing the same intransigence over budget and social issues that Boehner struggled with.
Davidson’s win Tuesday could give those lawmakers reason to dig their heels in as things escalate. They can make their case to Republican leaders that, sure, putting their foot down on a proposed budget that increases spending might hinder Republicans’ goal of passing a budget on time. But what they’re doing is really in the interest of a growing number of Republican voters. Look no further than this highly symbolic seat they just won.
The head of the conservative Club for Growth predicted to Politico before the primary, the first big open House primary this year, that Boehner’s seat would be “a bellwether for what Republican primary voters are looking for now.”
Speaking of outside groups, several of them sensed the momentum that could come from a win and tried to factor heavily in this race. Politico reports that the Club for Growth spent a eyebrow-raising $1 million on TV ads to prop up Davidson and attack his rivals. And a new nonprofit aimed at supporting moderate conservatives, Right Way Initiative, spent $450,000 backing state Rep. Tim Derickson, who came in second. Boehner did not endorse anyone, though many of his allies were backing more establishment-oriented candidates.
The size of the primary field probably didn’t help these candidates’ chances by splitting the ticket. And the Cincinnati Enquirer talked to several voters on election night who couldn’t remember who they voted for in the huge field.
But whether you credit their victory to the TV ads from outside groups or a groundswell of support among conservative Republican voters – or just plain confused Republican voters – matters less than the fact that the conservative guys won one of the most coveted congressional Republican primaries on Tuesday. And they can rightly brag about it.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Amber Phillips