Animal House

Ted Yoho and his fellow freshmen promise to make John Boehner’s life even more hellish.

John Cuneo

On a foggy Florida morning shortly before his first-ever general election, soon-to-be Congressman Ted Yoho was grinding down the teeth of a quarter horse named Little Man. First, Yoho injected the 1,000-pound animal with a tranquilizer. Then he yanked Little Man’s tongue out of the way and, with a full-body motion that evoked both dentist and lumberjack, took a 15‑inch filing tool to his back teeth.

Yoho was glad for the break from campaigning. Before deciding to challenge the 12-term Republican Congressman Cliff Stearns in last August’s primary, Yoho had spent three decades working as a large-animal veterinarian. With his 6-foot-2 frame, strong arms, and growing belly, he still looks more at home in a barn than he does at a lectern—a quality that helped propel him to one of the biggest primary upsets of 2012 and, this January, to Washington.

Once, you’d have needed to look to the first Congresses in American history to find lawmakers skilled in animal husbandry. This year, Yoho isn’t even the only one—Kerry Bentivolio, a reindeer farmer, is representing Michigan’s 11th district. The renaissance of the citizen legislator began with the Tea Party surge of 2010, which brought a mortician, an auctioneer, a gospel singer, and a former NFL lineman to Capitol Hill. Though the 112th Congress became famous for melodramatic standoffs that forced its job-approval rating to a 40‑year low of 10 percent, voters this fall selected a team that looks remarkably similar.

Republicans maintained a strong majority in the House, losing only eight seats total and hanging on to most of their 2010 additions—including the mortician and company—who will now play wizened sophomore mentors to a new class of freshmen. One of the most striking aspects of the 113th Congress is its inexperience: a full 38 percent of House members have served for fewer than three years. That’s the largest percentage of rookies since the Gingrich Revolution of 1994—which, of course, resulted in a catastrophic government shutdown.

When Yoho defeated Stearns in the Republican primary for the third district, a recently redrawn, deep-red slice of northern Florida, it was not for a lack of conservatism on Stearns’s part; the then-incumbent led investigations into Solyndra and Planned Parenthood and packed endorsements from the National Rifle Association, Representatives Paul Ryan and Michele Bachmann, and everyone else on the conservative checklist. But Yoho successfully argued that Stearns had overstayed his welcome, bona fides be damned.

“Career politicians created this mess, or at least they didn’t do anything to prevent it,” Yoho likes to say, when he is not calling for the abolishment of the Department of Energy or the full repeal of Obamacare. The day before his rendezvous with Little Man, Yoho repeated this refrain during a roundtable with workers at a lumber mill; in a speech to retired federal employees; over glazed ham at the Newberry Lions Club; and finally at a barbecue hosted by the local Republican Party at a historic train depot. It’s also the message of the first and only television ad his campaign ran, which showed three men in suits on their hands and knees in a pigsty. The “career politicians” tussled with each other and ate from a trough while Yoho said, in voice-over, “All they do is throw mud at each other.”

As we hurtled down a two-lane highway en route to the lumber mill, Yoho told me he was not worried about offending his future colleagues. “Intimidating is going up to a growling Rottweiler and having to squeeze his anal glands, or going up to a stallion that weighs 1,200 pounds and telling him you’re going to take his testicles off,” he said from behind the wheel of his Ford Excursion. “That’s intimidating. I think I can handle Congress.”

Yoho sells himself as a regular working guy: someone who met his wife in fourth grade, got married as a teenager, bought a trailer home, and started his own veterinary business. When he announced his candidacy last February, he had just 6 percent name recognition. Though he’d upped that to 66 percent by the time I visited, he was far from a household name.

“I don’t know how you expect to win with a name like Yoho,” said Lee Childers, a sales manager at the lumber mill. “I had to look you up to make sure you weren’t a Jap.” Yoho laughed. He told me later that he’d added his photo to campaign bumper stickers to clear up any confusion about his ethnicity.

After the roundtable, heading back to his house-cum-campaign-headquarters, Yoho asked me, “Did everything I said back there make sense? Was everything I said right?” When the conversation turned to committees he might join in the House, he said he hadn’t given it much thought. I suggested Agriculture, given his background. “Sure, I could see myself on Agriculture,” he said. “I’m not really sure about what that process looks like.” He mentioned the Republican Study Committee, a caucus made up of the most-conservative House members that aims, in part, to pull party leadership to the right.

When I called Stearns’s office in Washington last October, he’d had two months to mull the enduring political allure of outsiders. In a terse statement, he warned of a “very steep learning curve to serve in Congress effectively,” and recommended that Yoho lean on Republican leadership as he adjusts to legislative life. Yoho has other ideas. “With all the problems we are having, I won’t be afraid to tell leadership, ‘You need to explain to me why I should follow you anywhere,’ ” he told me, adding that, unlike two-thirds of last year’s freshmen, he would never have voted to raise the debt ceiling. “I think I scare them to death.”

In the car ride home from the lumber mill, he laid out his post-election game plan. “You ever hear of the Kobayashi Maru test?” he asked me, referring to a military training simulation from Star Trek. Yoho explained: Mr. Spock designed the Kobayashi Maru challenge as an unwinnable scenario, to teach cadets how to accept defeat. But before taking the test, James Kirk reprogrammed it so that he could beat it.

“When he was accused of cheating, Captain James T. Kirk said it wasn’t cheating—that the game was designed to fail, so he changed the game,” Yoho said. “That’s what I’m going to do: change the game.”