Tales of underdogs can be heartwarming. But tea party-backed Ted Yoho, who upset 12-term Rep. Cliff Stearns in a four-way Republican primary in Florida’s new 3rd District, took more of a heart-worming path to Congress: He’s been a veterinarian in north-central Florida for more than 29 years.
Yoho was born in Minneapolis, the fifth of six sons. He moved with his family at age 11 to South Florida, where he lived until graduating from high school. A star offensive tackle, Yoho landed a football scholarship at Florence State University (now the University of North Alabama), but quickly decided to return to Florida. He married his high school sweetheart, Carolyn, whom he has known since 4th grade, and began working toward his goal of becoming a veterinarian. The couple moved to Gainesville, where he finished a bachelor’s degree in animal science at the University of Florida, then graduated from its veterinary college.
Yoho built a successful large-animal veterinarian practice. But by 2009, he had decided to run for Congress. He said in an interview that he first became interested in politics a decade earlier during President Clinton’s impeachment drama. But over time, he grew fed up with politicians he complained either couldn’t or wouldn’t fix “the mess” in Washington many of them helped to create. He sold his veterinary practice and launched his campaign. “One political consultant told us this race would be a good ‘practice run,’ ” he recalled with bemusement.
Yoho was not nearly as well-known in political circles as two of his opponents in the GOP primary, Stearns and state Sen. Steve Oelrich of Gainesville. Also running in Florida’s newly created 3rd District was Clay County Clerk Jimmy Jett. Stearns, 71, who had a huge cash advantage, had not been considered in jeopardy, but redistricting forced him to run in a newly drawn area that was more conservative. He committed a few errors, including focusing more of his attention on Oelrich.
With just one paid employee—his 24-year-old campaign manager—Yoho stumped aggressively as a Christian (Catholic) and a conservative. He embraced his tea party backing, railed against “career politicians,” and snagged the endorsements of former GOP vice presidential nominee and tea party darling Sarah Palin and key House conservatives Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, and Allen West of Florida. He told voters that he wants to repeal President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, and emphasized his own first-hand perspectives in having run a successful small business and being on the receiving end of regulations and “garbage legislation” from Washington.
But he also promised that his “moral compass” wouldn’t let him be beholden to anyone. He opposes raising taxes, but won’t sign lobbyist and conservative activist Grover Norquist’s no-tax pledge on the grounds that a war or other events may leave few alternatives. He said he will serve no more than eight years in the House.
Yoho flashed a sense of humor during his primary race. His campaign featured an ad showing suited “politicians” feeding from a pig trough, and a video about an upcoming fundraiser with a President George W. Bush impersonator. Using $50,000 of his own money, he edged out Stearns by just 875 votes. Moments after Stearns conceded, Yoho celebrated for cheering supporters by emulating the famous practice of former University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow of bending on one knee to say a prayer after a big play. In such a heavily Republican district, he had far less trouble in the general election against Democratic businessman J.R. Gaillot.