At first glance, Rep. Cliff Stearns of Florida seemed to have his conservative credentials lined up ahead of Tuesday’s Republican primary. He was endorsed by two tea party favorites – former GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann and vice presidential hopeful Rep. Paul Ryan – and belongs to the House Tea Party Caucus.
The 12-term congressman also has led investigations into Solyndra and Planned Parenthood – two entities conservatives love to hate – and was backed by such high-profile groups as the National Right To Life, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the political action committee of the Family Research Council and the American Conservative Union.
Yet all of that wasn’t enough to persuade Republican voters in the Sunshine State’s rural north that he was a genuine conservative. Instead, political upstart Ted Yoho – aided by strong tea party support – surprisingly edged out Mr. Stearns by slightly more than 800 votes – about 1 percentage point.
Mr. Stearns raised hundreds of thousands of dollars more than his opponent and was a heavy favorite early in the race. He also had won kudos among Republicans nationally for his investigations into a federal green-energy loan program that included the failed solar-technology company Solyndra, and Planned Parenthood — the country’s largest women’s health and abortion provider.
But he ran up against a buzz saw of anti-Washington backlash that has victimized other GOP lawmakers nationwide in primaries this year.
“We just want some fresh blood up there (in Washington). We’re sick of all the cronyism,” said Kevin Jones, a tea party activist in Lake City, Fla. “He’s done nothing for us – nothing for anybody, except cash his paycheck.”
Redistricting had left Mr. Stearns running in a new district that has about 70 percent of the constituents of his former district. And the Yoho campaign viewed the race’s low voter turnout as an advantage, trumpeting it on its Facebook page Tuesday afternoon.
“Just got a report of record low turnout across the district, which is great for TEAM YOHO!!!” the post said.
Mr. Stearns, who initially had said he wouldn’t concede until the race was certified, called Mr. Yoho at 12:15 p.m. to wish the winner well.
“He was very polite and offered some small advice about holding the office and left his door open for any questions in the future,” Yoho campaign manager Kat Cammack said of the congressman’s call.
Mr. Stearns, in a statement released by his campaign Wednesday afternoon, said he was disappointed he won’t be able to continue investigations of Solyndra and Planned Parenthood.
“There is so much left to do in conducting oversight over the White House and the president’s growing expansion of government into our lives,” he said. “I stand proud of my 24-year record of conservative leadership and of defending our traditional values in Congress.”
Mr. Yoho, a veterinarian, ended up with 34.4 percent of the vote to Mr. Stearns’ 33.1 percent. Mr. Yoho will face Democrat J.R. Gaillot and several write-in candidates in the November general election.
Democrats view Mr. Stearns as the latest victim of the tea party’s growing influence within the Republican Party.
“Another Republican falling to the tea party shows how deep the trouble is for Republican incumbents in Florida who can’t even win their own primaries,” said Jesse Ferguson, a spokesman with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the fundraising and recruiting arm of House Democrats.
“The same tea party primary voters have left Republicans with unelectable extremists running all across the country who can’t appeal to the middle and alienate independents.”
In the general election, Mr. Yoho will be a heavy favorite in the conservative district. And a win in November won’t guarantee future election success, as voters would keep close tabs on his voting record, Mr. Jones said.
“This is a public service job; this is not a career,” he said. “You go up there (to Washington) and stand up for right. There is right, and there is wrong, It’s just black or white for most people, especially in the South.”
• Sean Lengell can be reached at email@example.com.
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