Boehner wins Ohio primary, despite national unpopularity among GOP base


House Speaker John Boehner talks to employees during a tour of the Machintek Corp. plant in Fairfield, Ohio, on Monday. (Al Behrman/AP)

House Speaker John A. Boehner cruised to victory Tuesday, easily beating two tea party challengers in his Ohio congressional district and proving that in spite of his unpopularity with the Republican base, his grip on power at home remains firm.

It was a rare moment of celebration for Boehner, who has endured a rough year, from the ongoing fights within his party over immigration reform to the tumult of October’s government shutdown.

Boehner’s win, however, does little to provide him with a significant boost in political capital in Washington, where he has been dogged by rumors about retiring and, failing that, a host of conservative critics who are plotting to oust him from his post later this year.

Instead of being emboldened by his primary sweep and rushing to bring bipartisan legislation to the floor, Boehner is more likely to continue to inch forward on immigration and other issues, wary of alienating those on his right, even though he has just swatted away their allies.

Boehner is constrained by the weakening of the gavel and the institutional authority of the Republican Party in recent years. A constellation of well-funded conservative pressure groups and Boehner’s swearing off earmarks have created a House culture where the leadership has little to offer and battling the leadership has become a mark of tea party toughness.

To make matters worse, some key members of Boehner’s inner circle, such as Iowa Rep. Tom Latham and Michigan Rep. Mike Rogers, will retire at the end of this year, weary of the constant bickering and ideological disputes within the Republican cloakroom.

Last month, in a speech in his district, Boehner lamented the state of affairs and teased his conservative colleagues about their unwillingness to find consensus on immigration. “Here’s the attitude: ‘Ooh, don’t make me do this,’ ” he said with a playful scowl.

Boehner, who spends most weekends fundraising for House candidates at private events, now turns his full attention to preserving the House GOP’s majority and overseeing his conference’s 200-plus members, who are often at odds with each other and grappling with how to adapt to the country’s rapidly changing demographics.

This week, Boehner’s focus has been on setting up a select committee to investigate the State Department’s handling of the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya. The move was met with cheers from conservatives, who had been pushing Boehner to do so and believe the party’s core voters are especially keen for more inquiries.

More red meat for the tea party faithful is on the way ahead of November, with the GOP leadership promising more investigations of not only the State Department, but also of the Internal Revenue Service and its handling of applications from conservative advocacy organizations.

In Ohio, several tea party groups had targeted Boehner for months, hoping to generate nationwide interest in the race. The Tea Party Leadership Fund spent more than $300,000 on efforts to defeat the 12-term congressman, and ForAmerica, an outfit run by conservative activist L. Brent Bozell, launched a “dump the leadership” campaign.

But due to his rivals’ scarce funds and stumbles, and the reluctance of more influential conservative groups to jump into the race and back a challenger, Boehner’s survival was never in doubt — and a sitting speaker still has never been defeated in a primary election.

The two tea party-backed candidates, businessman Eric Gurr and educator J.D. Winteregg, struggled to catch on. And last week, a third challenger, tea party organizer Matthew Ashworth, dropped out of the primary. Winteregg’s one fleeting moment of national notice came when he produced a controversial ad that said Boehner suffered from “electile dysfunction,” and then promptly lost his job at a small Christian college for publishing the spot.

Yet Boehner, who has represented the suburban counties north of Cincinnati since 1990, campaigned harder this year than he had in his previous election. He spent heavily to air his first television ads since 2010 and he frequently hit the trail with his protective detail in tow, touring a pig farm and a welding plant.

Speaking Monday to a gathering of factory workers in Fairfield, Ohio, Boehner played up his conservative views and his blue-collar roots rather than cite a litany of legislative accomplishments, seemingly aware that even near his home town, being speaker today only means so much.

“I fight every day for a smaller, less costly and more accountable federal government,” he said. “It’s as simple as that. I’m a regular guy with a big job.”

Robert Costa is a national political reporter at The Washington Post.
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