WEST CHESTER, Ohio (AP) — Open after nearly 25 years of John Boehner, a House district in western Ohio has drawn a packed field with many candidates running as maverick outsiders, pledging to shake up the Washington scene in which the former speaker was a major player.
Republican voters will choose from 15 candidates running in unusual dual March 15 primary races in a crowded campaign, with people of varied backgrounds taking hard lines on national security, immigration and the Washington establishment.
Open seats have been rare in recent years in Ohio, and aspirants saw opportunity when Boehner decided to resign last year from the House speakership and the seat he first won in 1990 after beating a scandal-tainted incumbent in the Republican primary.
The district spans six counties containing northern Cincinnati suburbs, working-class cities and long rural stretches, and is reliably Republican, but the large field and the double vote leave the outcome "so unpredictable," said Miami University political scientist John Forren.
There are two state legislators in the field, along with business owners, military veterans and everything else from history teacher to grain elevator worker to 77-year-old retiree.
Butler County Auditor Roger Reynolds, an early contender some local conservatives believed had Boehner's blessing, suddenly dropped out, citing family reasons, and among the leading candidates to emerge since then is businessman and Army veteran Warren Davidson, backed by former Boehner antagonists such as the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks conservative advocacy groups and GOP Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio.
J.D. Winteregg, of Troy, touts himself as having dared to take on Boehner directly in a 2014 lopsided primary loss.
"I'm a fighter," Winteregg, a former teacher who works at a grain elevator, said at a recent candidates' forum. "I've gone against arguably the third-most powerful guy in the world and survived."
During the Feb. 22 forum at Miami University's Voice of America learning center, near Boehner's golf-course community home in West Chester Township, the few mentions of him tended to be negative, such as criticism for not doing more about national debt or against President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.
Ann Becker, a West Chester resident and tea party activist, liked what she heard, saying most of the candidates took positions she agreed with.
"Warren Davidson. So far, he's my pick," Becker said, saying that she likes his conservatism and non-politician background but that it took her a long time to decide with such a large field.
Little-known when the race began, Davidson said he felt that even after Republicans gained control of the House and Senate, "still nothing changes," and there was a lot of pent-up frustration in the district.
"I looked at who was getting into the field, and I felt like I had something distinct to offer," Davidson said, citing his overseas military experience and business experience.
Entering February, Davidson reported having the third-most cash on hand, behind state Rep. Tim Derickson and state Sen. Bill Beagle. Beagle had more than $200,000.
Another candidate, construction materials business owner Jim Spurlino, bills himself as "the true conservative outsider" and says in a TV ad that he is running against "professional politicians" Beagle, Derickson and Davidson (including Davidson because politicians have endorsed him).
Perhaps befitting his name, Beagle is known in Ohio's Statehouse for authoring legislation against vicious dogs, while ads for him stress that he's not a career politician and will "fix Washington." Ads for Derickson play off his roots in a dairy farming family, with one showing him shoveling and pitchforking the kind of manure he says he's tired of in Washington.
In a field espousing conservative themes and claims to be outsiders, it could be difficult for candidates to stand out.
"They weren't saying a lot to differentiate themselves on policy grounds," said Forren, the Miami University political scientist, who moderated a forum in Hamilton.
But Middletown attorney Terri King raised eyebrows in the West Chester forum during discussion of a border wall with Mexico, a move many of the candidates support. She went further, calling for a border wall with Canada, too, because of her concern that Islamic extremists who want to establish "Sharia law" in the United States could slip in from the north.
The other Republicans: Matthew Ashworth, who's in digital mortgage underwriting; Scott George, a human resources and learning consultant; Eric Haemmerle, a history teacher; Joseph Matvey, an accountant; Edward Meer, a press operator; John Robbins, a retired steelworker and former health department worker who's oldest in the field at 77; Michael Smith, a former bank loan officer; Kevin White, an airline pilot and military veteran, and George Wooley, an investment property manager.
Only one Democrat, the little-known Corey Foister, is running, as is one Green Party candidate, Jim Condit Jr.
Voters will see the candidates listed twice: for nomination for the June 7 special election to complete Boehner's term and for the nomination for the general election to a full term in next year's Congress. Theoretically, different GOP nominees could emerge, with winning totals nowhere near a majority.
"It's certainly a different dynamic, I'll tell you that," said Beagle, of Tipp City. "I'll let you know on March 16 how it all worked out."
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