For the Tea Party, it would be the finest scalp of all.
As incumbent after incumbent and establishment-backed favorite after establishment-backed favorite has been devoured by the apparently insatiable maw of the Republican insurgency, John Boehner has remained a thorn in their tricorn hat.
Recall, after all, that soon after the 2012 election, the first order of business for the Tea Party was to find a new House speaker.
That insurrection quickly faded, but now the Boehner-haters are coming back, hoping to knock off the most powerful Republican in the country in the Ohio GOP primary May 6.
“John Boehner is where he is because he has spent a lifetime hustling money from the Chamber of Commerce to stay in office and sell us down the river,” said Tom Zawistowski, a leader of the Ohio Tea Party. “We finally realized the electoral process has been hijacked.”
Earlier this year, the Tea Party Leadership Fund began a high-profile search for a candidate in its “Primary Boehner” campaign. After a public forum and a straw poll, it settled on J.D. Winteregg, a 32-year-old teacher from Troy, Ohio. Winteregg was a political novice, but in 2013 he had launched his own group, called the Ohio Accountability Project, and had been badgering Boehner to hold more town halls in the district.
“He is not representing us,” Winteregg said. “He is going there and is more interested in securing his power than serving our needs. Frankly, it is embarrassing. Once you are in Washington for so long, you lose sight of why you are there.”
The campaign, however, largely failed to capture the attention of the public outside Tea Party circles until this month, when a video from the Winteregg camp went viral. The advertisement, a spoof on the Cialis ads that run on a seemingly endless loop, hit Boehner for “electile dysfunction,” an illness signaled by “extreme skin discoloration, the inability to punch oneself out of a wet paper bag or maintain a spine in the face of liberal opposition.”
“Your electile dysfunction? It could be a question of blood flow. Sometimes when a politician has been in D.C. too long, it goes to his head and he just can’t seem to get the job done,” the narrator continued over footage of Boehner with President Obama. “If you have a Boehner lasting more than 23 years, seek immediate medical attention.”
The joke ended up being on Winteregg, however. This week he was fired from his part-time position teaching French at an Ohio Christian college, which found the ad in poor taste.
Winteregg sounded surprised at all the attention the ad had generated but said he was soldiering on and determined to turn the incident to his advantage.
“I think we are on the national scene now,” he said. “We have got a lot of momentum going into the last week. I think you have a lot of people who are frustrated with Boehner who are motivated now based on what they have seen on my campaign.”
The ad, he said, “got my name out there in a cost-effective way.” And anyone who is offended, he added, should get over it.
“Republicans and conservatives are often criticized as being humorless fuddy-duddies,” he said. “I think there are real Republicans out there that are more in tune with the rest of America.”
Tea Party types see the kind of hardball politics Boehner is famous for in Winteregg’s dismissal from the college and speculate that the speaker or one of his allies pressured Winteregg’s employers.
“Run the damn primary like a man, and don’t go around destroying people,” said Zawistowski.
Eric Gurr, a business owner and a Tea Party activist, also is challenging Boehner. A third candidate dropped out on Tuesday.
The speaker has faced primary challenges before, but none as vigorous as this year’s efforts; he usually wins by 60 points or more.
His challengers are already claiming a victory of sorts, saying Boehner has been forced to campaign in the district and to spend some of his more than $3 million war chest. And any kind of return to the rigors of the campaign trail will not be faultless. Boehner’s opponents believe they forced him into a couple of errors when he returned to Ohio last week.
At a Rotary Club in Middletown last week, Boehner chided his fellow Republicans for failing to take tough votes on immigration reform, saying of his colleagues, “Here’s the attitude: ‘Ohhhh, don’t make me do this. Ohhhh, this is too hard.’”
"We get elected to make choices,” the speaker added. “We get elected to solve problems, and it’s remarkable to me how many of my colleagues just don’t want to...They’ll take the path of least resistance.”
Boehner also lashed out at the Tea Party, telling the Rotarians, "Well, there’s the Tea Party and then there are people who purport to represent the Tea Party. I don’t have any issue with the Tea Party; I have issues with organizations in Washington who raise money purporting to represent the Tea Party...raising money to line their own pockets.”
This week, he was forced to walk back those comments in Washington.
“Yep, well, he finally went back to his district last week, insulted Republicans and conservatives, caved on immigration, mocked the Tea Party, and as far as I can tell went back to Washington,” said Rusty Humphries, a radio host and a leader of the Tea Party Leadership Fund’s ‘Primary Boehner’ effort. “Just because you were elected once doesn’t mean you get to stay there the rest of your life. It is time.”