Correction: This article was updated to correct the year in which former senator Thomas A. Daschle lost his bid for reelection. It was 2004.
House Speaker John A. Boehner’s tenure as the top Republican in Congress has not been smooth. He has sparred with a combative Democratic president and a Democratic-led Senate. He has been attacked by conservatives in his party who think he is insufficiently ideological, and he has had to deal with constant rumors that his top lieutenant, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), is plotting to steal his speakership.
And that is when he is not dealing with rumors about his own resignation.
But Boehner’s latest challenge is more direct, a full-on assault from tea party activists in his Ohio congressional district, where he will face three challengers in a May 6 primary. One of those is a young high school French teacher named J.D. Winteregg, who is receiving support from a national organization that has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into advertisements, billboards and direct mail aimed at persuading voters to drop the House speaker.
“I’m fed up with him. I’m fed up with the fact that he’s never home, fed up with the fact that he’s never accessible,” Winteregg, 32, said in an interview. “It’s rare that I meet someone that’s for Boehner. The first thing they usually say is, ‘He’s been there too long.’ And the second thing they say is, ‘Let’s throw all the bums out.’ ”
Winteregg is a political novice who has never sought elected office. He has raised just $43,000 for his bid, less than 1 percent of the $5.5 million Boehner has amassed for his principal campaign account. But the Tea Party Leadership Fund has spent almost $320,000 on voter communications opposing Boehner and backing Winteregg. The fund’s chairman, radio host Rusty Humphries, said the group interviewed a number of candidates before deciding to back Winteregg.
Winteregg “reminds me of a young reformer back 24 years ago,” he said. “There was this guy John Boehner who was going to reform things; he was going to change things. Boehner hasn’t been doing the job that the people of Ohio sent him there to do. They sent him there to be a strong conservative voice.”
Primary challenges are nothing new for Boehner. Since winning his seat, which includes several suburban and rural counties north of Cincinnati along the Indiana border, he has won five contested primaries. In 2010, he beat two challengers and took 85 percent of the vote. Two years later, he won 84 percent of Republican voters against a single challenger.
But Boehner knows this year is different in at least one regard: Unlike 2010, when now-Sen. Rob Portman’s campaign was running get-out-the-vote operations, or 2012, when Republican presidential candidates were battling for delegates, there is no high-stakes race on the ballot this primary season. Gov. John Kasich (R) is unopposed in his bid for renomination, and neither Ohio Senate seat is up for grabs.
Incumbents are most vulnerable in low-turnout elections, when voters motivated by opposition to members of Congress can turn out in higher proportions than those who favor the status quo. So Boehner, who is used to shelling out campaign cash to fellow Republicans nationwide, is spending some of his own money.
The campaign has spent $297,000 on television ads running in both the Cincinnati and Dayton media markets, according to filings made with local television stations. Boehner has two campaign offices open, one in his home town of West Chester and another satellite office in Miami County, farther north.
“We always take every race very seriously, and we’re very committed to doing what we need to do to mobilize our base and turn out voters on May 6,” said Cory Fritz, a Boehner spokesman. “We just don’t want to take anything for granted.”
The advertisements portray Boehner, a former plastics company executive, as intimately familiar with the district he has represented for 24 years. Winteregg said his votes to suspend the debt ceiling and for a stop-gap budget that provided funding for elements of the Affordable Care Act belied that claim.
“If you really were one of us, why do you have to spend so much money convincing us you’re one of us?” Winteregg asked. “I rarely hear of him here. He’s really out of touch with us.”
Fritz said Boehner, who was in Afghanistan, Abu Dhabi and Turkey last week, will spend part of this week visiting constituents and small businesses in his district.
Although national tea party groups criticize Boehner’s handling of House business, the speaker has a better relationship with local conservative organizations in his district.
Just one of the five tea party groups in Butler County is actively opposing his reelection bid.
“It’s something to have the speaker of the House as your representative. And to trade that in on a freshman, if you’re a thinking person, you really have to think hard whether you want to do that or not, especially given the chance of taking the Senate,” said Tim Savaglio, a member of the Liberty Township Tea Party’s board who says he will vote for Boehner.
Rumors of his impending retirement have dogged Boehner for months, but his fundraising productivity suggests otherwise; various committees he controls have raised more than $28 million since the beginning of the 113th Congress. He raised an additional $25 million or so for various candidates and Republican committees in 2013 by showing up at more than 100 fundraising events, his political office said.
It is extremely rare for a member of House leadership to lose a reelection bid. Guy Vander Jagt, who chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee, lost a primary to fellow Republican Pete Hoekstra in 1992. House Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.) lost his bid for another term in the Republican wave of 1994, and Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) lost his seat — and the Democratic majority — in 2004.
Complicating matters for Winteregg are the two other Republicans vying to oust Boehner. Matthew Ashworth, a tea party activist, and Eric Gurr, who owns a computer consulting firm, could split the anti-Boehner vote.
Boehner first won his seat in Congress by challenging an incumbent. In 1990, Boehner, then a state representative, ran against Rep. Buz Lukens, who had been convicted of a misdemeanor after a sexual relationship with a minor; Boehner beat Lukens and another former congressman, Tom Kindness, with a 49 percent plurality of the vote.
“He always makes an effort to run for reelection, but there’s no doubt that he’s putting a little extra effort into it this time,” said George Lang, president of the West Chester Township’s Board of Trustees. “In my opinion, this is still Boehner country.”