The antiestablishment wave roiling the Republican presidential primary is also crashing into a corner of Ohio in the race to replace John Boehner.
Since the former speaker resigned in October amid heavy pressure from conservatives, more than a dozen Republicans have piled into the special-election race, including two state legislators, several political neophytes, and one of the tea-party challengers that Boehner trounced in 2014.
With just less than two months until the primary, Ohio Republicans say the jumbled field for the safe GOP seat still lacks a consensus front-runner.
“It’s totally up in the air,” said Ohio GOP operative Alex Scharfetter, a former Boehner aide who is unaligned in the primary. “This race is anyone’s race. It’s going to be a sprint to the finish of who can reach the most voters.”
The most well-known candidates are state Rep. Tim Derickson and state Sen. Bill Beagle. But last week, in a sign the race could attract national interest, the Club for Growth endorsed businessman Warren Davidson, the group’s fourth House endorsement this cycle.
“The fact that he’s never held elected office during a year of outsiders makes him more interesting,” club spokesman Doug Sachtleben said. “And from what we’ve seen, he’s got a strong business record.”
The group hasn’t decided whether it will launch independent expenditures in the primary.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich set the special primary for March 15, coinciding with the state’s presidential and congressional primaries. The timing ensures that turnout will be significantly higher than the usual special-election primary, which in this red district is the determinative race. The special general election is June 7.
The biggest turn in the campaign came when Butler County Auditor Roger Reynolds, whom Ohio Republicans perceived as aligned with Boehner, unexpectedly ended his bid last month. Scharfetter was Reynolds’s campaign manager.
With no obvious successor, Republicans in the state expect Boehner to remain on the sidelines. The Ohio Republican Party also is not planning to endorse in the primary, spokeswoman Brittany Warner said.
There are signs that Boehner’s longtime conservative antagonists will work to elect an ally in his former district. Conservative groups view the district, which Mitt Romney carried by 26 points in 2012, as a prime target to make inroads in the House Republican Conference.
Members of the House Freedom Caucus could get involved in the primary, The Washington Post reported last month.
“The icing on the cake of Boehner leaving Congress would be for a future member of the House Freedom Caucus to win the seat,” FreedomWorks spokesman Jason Pye said. His group isn’t planning an endorsement for now but has met with Derickson and looks forward to meeting with Davidson, Pye said.
Even before the special election was set, candidates were already campaigning for the seat and meeting with donors.
Just before ending his campaign, Reynolds fell 1 point short of netting the GOP endorsement in Butler County, the district’s main population center. The area, which is Reynolds's and Derickson's base, accounts for more than 40 percent of the primary vote.
Republicans say Derickson could inherit much of Reynolds's supporters. Indeed, all but one elected official at the county level in Butler has now backed Derickson, including Reynolds.
But Beagle’s expensive state Senate race in 2014 could also be a notable asset in his campaign. In that race, his name recognition was boosted by more than $1 million in paid media. Derickson, by contrast, hasn’t faced serious reelection hurdles.
Republicans also point to non-traditional candidates such as businessman James Spurlino as a potential self-funder who could shake up the race.
The viability of candidates in the field will become clearer when the campaigns reveal their fundraising totals by Jan. 31.
Also hanging over the race is the state’s presidential primary, which could draw more nontraditional voters to the polls. If Donald Trump, for example, is still a viable candidate by then, the electorate could include many first-time Republican primary voters, potentially benefiting candidates without any political background.
“However, in the Boehner race, they have a menu full of nonincumbent types they can choose from,” Ohio GOP strategist Bob Clegg said. “I don’t know if it necessarily helps one individual in that situation. There are so many.”
Kimberly Railey is an editorial fellow for National Journal Hotline. Prior to joining National Journal, she covered Congress at the Washington bureau of The Dallas Morning News. She has also written for The Boston Globe, USA TODAY, and The Christian Science Monitor. Originally from South Florida, she graduated from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, where she served as managing editor of The Daily Northwestern.