GAINESVILLE -- For two years, U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns has used his newfound clout in Washington as a spear against the Obama administration, heading probes into Solyndra and Planned Parenthood that have made him one of the most reviled figures among Democrats nationwide.
But Stearns’ 24-year career came to a shocking end Tuesday by the hand of his own party, defeated in the Republican primary by a horse doctor from Gainesville named Ted Yoho.
As Stearns conceded Wednesday, the news reverberated nationally, speaking not only to the lurking prowess of the tea party but also the threat facing incumbents, especially those not pounding the streets with all the zeal of their first race.
“He thought he was invincible,” said Ray Carlile, chairman of the O’Brien Tea Party in rural Suwannee County, which voted 2-to-1 for Yoho and helped him pad the 800-or-so vote advantage that retired Stearns.
“We went into this hoping to win,” said Yoho, 57, who had never run for office. “But did I expect this? My feeling right now is just … numb.”
As the improbable blurred with reality election night, Yoho dropped to his knee Tim Tebow-style, thanked God then took a sip of champagne. Yoho said his lack of political experience was key.
“Our message is that we’ve all had enough,” Yoho said Wednesday afternoon as he sat with family and a small staff in a cozy campaign office only steps from his back porch on the outskirts of town. His dogs, Maya and Lucy, wandered in.
Yoho, who sold his veterinarian practice three years ago, said he spent 80 to 100 hours per week on his campaign and made 10,000 phone calls. He faces a Democrat and independent in November, but the district favors his politics.
Yoho doesn’t want to sponsor many bills, he said, because he thinks the government should intrude less in people’s lives. He wants to repeal the healthcare law and other regulations.
“I’ve owned a small business. I pay taxes,” he said. “Unlike the entrenched politician, I’ve been in the trenches.”
Tall and broad-shouldered with brown hair thinning at the top, Yoho was born in Minnesota and moved with his family to South Florida as a boy. He and his wife, Carolyn, have known each other since fourth grade and were prom king and queen in Deerfield Beach. Yoho landed in Gainesville for college, stayed for vet school and never left.
The name? It’s Scandinavian and pronounced YO-ho, more holiday cheer than chocolate beverage.
“I call people, and they say, ‘Who?’ ” he joked. “That’s why I have to put my picture on my signs.”
Yoho was aided by low turnout and a four-way race that got intense. Stearns mainly went after state Sen. Steve Oelrich, a former sheriff from Alachua County. Yoho also got creative, running a humorous but biting TV ad that showed men in suits feeding from a pig trough and slinging barnyard mud at each other.
And he tapped into the tea party, railing against “socialism” taking over the federal government. He has promised to serve only eight years.
“People want change and he is something different,” said Linda Ahern of Gainesville, who voted for Yoho but was nonetheless shocked he won.
“It’s very hard to beat an incumbent,” said her husband, Frank. “I would have voted for Yoho but I never thought he would win, so I thought I would be wasting my vote.”