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.”
Stearns, 71, likely would not have lost if it weren’t for redistricting, the once-every-decade redrawing of congressional lines. His Ocala home became part of a district held by Rep. Rich Nugent, R-Spring Hill, so Stearns looked to the newly created District 3, of which a third was new territory to him.
Grassroots and tea party organizers say Stearns did not keep up contact with them or put in the door-to-door labor.
“We never saw Cliff Stearns. He didn’t campaign. He didn’t ask us for his vote. Not just in this election; it was true in the last one,” said Charlie Perez, president of the Gilchrist County Tea Party.
Tellingly, Stearns as of late July still had $2 million in his campaign account. Yoho raised a total of $305,000. His paid staff consisted of his 24-year-old campaign manager.
“Stearns could have obliterated these people,” said Jessica Taylor, an analyst with The Rothenberg Political Report. “It just shows you really have to continue to keep your finger on the pulse of the district. When incumbents haven’t done that in this environment, you have seen them lose.”
Ten-term Florida Rep. John Mica of Winter Park got that message and on Tuesday successfully held off a tea party-fueled challenge from rookie U.S. Rep. Sandy Adams after reapportionment put them both in the same district.Mica raised and spent a lot, and worked the district harder than he has in a long time.
“I’m sure there’s a lot of disappointment and you could see it in [Stearns’] eyes and face,” said former state Sen. Jim Horne of Jacksonville, a longtime ally. “The hyper-partisan politics of Washington have poisoned voters’ view of all politicians. People were willing to throw out the good to make sure they are throwing out the bad.”
Sharp partisanship had become familiar to Stearns. As chairman of the Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, he had emerged in the past two years as a chief antagonist of the Obama administration, heading up the investigation in the failed solar company Solyndra.
He demanded financial records from Planned Parenthood to see if taxpayer money was being used for abortions. Stearns also questioned whether the president’s birth certificate was real.
While those issues made him a villain to liberals (but a hero to conservatives), they likely had little effect in the solidly Republican district. John McCain took 59 percent of the vote in 2008.
“I am disappointed that I won’t be able to continue my investigations of the Obama administration,” Stearns said in a statement Wednesday after calling Yoho to concede.
Alex Leary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Brittney Alana Davis can be reached at email@example.com.