Fla. Rep. Stearns beaten: None saw coming

Hours after Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) conceded defeat for renomination to tea party-backed newcomer Ted Yoho, political pundits are still wondering what happened.

24 years after he won his first term, Stearns (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 95 percent) lost by about 829 votes, or a margin of 34 to 33 percent, to veterinarian Yoho. Rounding out the four-candidate race in the redrawn 6th District were former state legislator Steve Aldrich (18.87 percent) and Clay County Clerk of Courts James Jett (14 percent).

Yoho???s victory is all the more impressive when one realizes he spent only $300,000 on the race and Stearns sat on more than $2 million in his campaign coffers.

Since he won a heated primary, run-off, and general election in 1988, Stearns has never had much competition for his seat. In the past year, he made national news as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations subcommittee with investigations into solar panel maker Solyndra and steroid use in pro wrestling.

There appear to be several factors in the veteran congressman???s undoing. Where Stearns had long represented a Gainesville-based district, redistricting in 2007 dramatically altered it by adding seven new counties. On Tuesday, Stearns lost every county in the new district except Clay (Jacksonville suburbs) and Marion (Ocala). Although the addition of some rural counties hurt, the congressman also ran poorly in Alachua County (Gainesville), which was part of his old district.

More importantly, there was a strong feeling among area tea partiers that Stearns was growing tone deaf to issues they felt strongest about. Brian Campbell, a Gainesville tea party activist, told Human Events: ???Look, we should salute and honor Congressman Stearns for his overall record. But in recent years, he disappointed us with some important votes: for the TARP bailouts and extending the PATRIOT Act and for lifting the debt ceiling.???

Yoho, Campbell told us, ???was out there campaigning and meeting people all the time.??? The first-time candidate won the straw votes of large tea party groups in the cities of Gainesville, Gilchrist, and Lake City. The insurgent candidate also managed to cobble together money to run TV spots comparing polilticians to pigs in slop, vowing a repeal of Obamacare. On YouTube, Yoho ran a video featuring a George W. Bush impersonator denouncing the Obama administration. Yoho also promised to serve no more than four terms in Congress.

The irony in the race was that when he won his first term in 1988, hotelier and Kiwanis Club President Stearns campaigned as an outsider who had never been involved in politics before. He won the GOP nod over Jim Cherry, a lawyer who had been active in GOP politics and served in the Reagan administration.

Nearly a quarter century later, it would seem that the very outsider strategy Stearns used to win his first term was used by his opponent to make this term the congressman???s last.