Yoho takes unorthodox path to Hill

Coming to Capitol Hill often gives newly elected officials a sense of unease and an aversion to risk. But not Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.).

“People would say, ‘Are you going to be intimidated when you go [to Washington]?” Yoho said. “And I’m like, ‘Well, heck no.’”

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That sort of nonchalant audacity shows in nearly every element of Yoho’s unorthodox path to Capitol Hill. He jumped into a four-way primary campaign against Rep. Cliff Stearns (R), a popular 12-term incumbent with national name recognition and a prodigious war chest. He vowed to limit his time in Congress to eight years on the grounds that George Washington restricted his own term to that period of time. His campaign manager was 24-year-old Kat Cammack, whose entire Washington experience consisted of a single internship on Capitol Hill. 

Yoho wasted no time making a splash in D.C. He was one of three GOP freshmen who did not vote for John Boehner (R-Ohio) for Speaker of the House. Instead, he cast his vote for Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), a move he characterized as “hold[ing] leadership accountable.” 

That kind of ploy might seem daring, especially for a tyro with no prior political experience or established allies. But not much gets to Rep. Yoho, who practiced as a large-animal veterinarian for nearly 30 years before his run for Congress. 

“A guy running, you know, fifteen, twenty stallions that are two years of age, never been touched by a human before and you’ve got to start castrating them, that’s pretty intimidating,” Yoho said. 

Yoho comes by his hard charging disposition naturally, the result of a life that at times took on the characteristics of a Horatio Alger story. 

Yoho’s family fell into poverty when his father’s building business failed. The family’s house was repossessed and neighbors brought over canned bacon to help out. (“It’ll stay forever,” Yoho noted). His parents divorced when he was 13 and he moved in with his mother and five brothers.

Five years later he had married his wife, Carolyn, and the two of them moved into a singlewide trailer, which his mother had to co-sign for, and for which they couldn’t afford the skirt. 

“I [grew up] in a lifestyle where you had more, then I transferred to a lifestyle where you didn’t have much. And I realized early on in life that it was better to have a little bit more than a little bit less.”

Yoho worked hard to overcome the obstacles that poverty presented. Though he and his wife were “broke as a church mouse” according to Yoho, they scraped by collecting soda cans and turning them in at their local Publix. Yoho and Carolyn worked as much as they could so that he could afford to get a veterinarian’s degree. At one point he held down a job at a packinghouse, cramming 40 hours of work into three days while still attending school part-time. 

As a result of his experiences, Yoho is skeptical of government programs designed to help alleviate poverty, which he believes give a hand-out rather than a hand-up. He also has a fondness for motivational stories and sayings like “I will do today what others won’t so I can do tomorrow what others can’t,” and “The harder you work, the luckier you get.” 

“If you help a chicken out of an egg,” Yoho said, “most of the time that bird will die. If you help a moth out of a cocoon, it’ll die because they don’t go through that struggle and maturation. I can give you a fish for the day and you’ll eat a day, but if I teach you to fish, you’ll eat for a lifetime. Maybe even start a business.”

That penchant for dogged work served him well in the GOP primary, where he faced long odds. 

Stearns outspent Yoho by a margin greater than 4-to-1, and still had $2 million in his war chest at the primary’s end. However, the GOP veteran rarely made local appearances in the rural portions of Florida’s third congressional district. Though he had steamrolled his way to reelection in 2010, redistricting separated him from his hometown of Ocala, his traditional base of power.  

Yoho was able to exploit those weaknesses, barnstorming throughout the countryside and taking every opportunity to engage voters in person. He put his meager funds to good use with an infamous television ad featuring “career politicians” in suits—one of them played by retired professional wrestler Dustin Runnels— slinging mud at each other and feeding at a trough with pigs. It was the only television ad that his campaign ran, but it gained national attention. 

On primary day, Yoho’s guerrilla tactics and Tea Party support earned him a series of victories in the smaller, outlying counties that were enough to unseat Stearns by fewer than 1,000 votes in the biggest upset of the election season. 

His general election victory over J.R. Gaillot Jr. was a romp by comparison: He trounced the self-described conservative Democrat by close to a 2-to-1 margin.