Why you should care
Because the anti-establishment label isn’t always easily defined.
The insurgency angle was just too juicy to resist: House Speaker John Boehner, sick of fending off endless revolts from pesky tea partyers, finally threw up his arms in defeat. And the man pegged to fill his Ohio 8th District seat of a quarter century seemed to be the embodiment of those who all but forced Boehner’s retirement last year — a political neophyte, backed by powerful conservative grassroots groups, with a platform of “antis” (anti-tax, anti-amnesty and, wouldya know it, anti-Obamacare). “John Boehner lost” without even being in the race, the Cincinnati Enquirer snarked, while the Wall Street Journal said the win “marked a rebuke to the political establishment.”
The only issue with that narrative? Despite all those rebellious conservative planks, Warren Davidson sounds nothing like a candidate hell-bent on sticking it to his forbears. “Working with people, building a team, that’s what I enjoy the most,” says the 46-year-old with a military-short haircut, open-collared shirt and unbuttoned blue blazer. This is no government-shutting-down Ted Cruz incarnate a la 2013. Sure, the ex-Army man has criticism for some of his marble hallway–trotting compatriots. (“The Republican Party has played an awful lot of defense,” he says. “When are we going to play offense, guys?”) But he peppers that urgency with an incisive practicality that includes promises to learn “the lay of the land” and “how Congress works.” Davidson still has to make it through a general election fight with a Democrat, but in a district that is almost bound to vote red in November, he can afford to look ahead a little.
In fact, sitting here in a single-day rental office that’s closer to the Capitol than the famously insider-y K Street, Davidson is getting a jump-start in assessing who really “get things done,” as he puts it. He’s met with lawmakers and power players all day. For one, he’s already received the support of Jim Jordan, chairman of the House Freedom Caucus. (Since our meeting, Davidson has joined the caucus, which helped push out Boehner). Davidson was also endorsed by the Senate Conservatives Fund and Club for Growth, which have backed the candidacies of conservative stars like Rand Paul and Marco Rubio in the past. “A lot of politicians lick their fingers and stick it into the wind. And you won’t get that with him,” says Andy Roth, political director of Club for Growth, which threw $1 million behind Davidson to help him emerge from a crowded 15-person Republican field in March.
Does his punch lack the kind of pizzazz that pushes through legislation in an age of shareable memes?
Today, in Washington, Davidson is trying to get a sense of what levers of power he could pull. The House Armed Services Committee would be a natural fit, says Davidson, who grew up in the ’80s with Army Ranger dreams, back when the epic commando commercials of today didn’t exist, and only after he realized that he probably wouldn’t “play second base for the Reds.” After graduating high school, he started a decade in uniform. As a cadet at West Point, the company commander carried a nascent seriousness, focusing on “doing things right” and enforcing the standards of made beds and organized drills. “The normal term we [used for] someone like that is a ‘tool,’” says Army Lt. Col. David Zinn, a friend and classmate. But Davidson, he adds, was “well-liked.” Davidson never saw the battlefield but had honor-laden stints with the 101st Airborne Division, a storied combat unit, and at Fort Myer, the outpost overlooking Arlington Cemetery.
Despite his rising clout, Davidson decided to move on from the military in ’99, frustrated with what he perceived as a lack of leadership from the Clinton administration. Returning to Ohio, he built a high-tech manufacturing company, a resume item that leads to his other committee interest, the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Manufacturing and Trade. “Show me the data,” Davidson says, and for him, business is all about accountability and cold, hard stats. “Frankly, coming into this potential job, that’s one of my concerns: Do facts matter to some of these folks?” After taking over his father’s business in the early aughts, Davidson grew it from 20 employees to around 200, he says. “There are so many dynamics in this globally flattened, hypercompetitive manufacturing age,” says Greg Knox, president of Knox Machinery, a longtime client. “Right from the get-go, he had a board of advisers. I found him to be extremely strategic.”
Is tactical precision enough to overcome the gridlocked strife that plagues Washington, though? Davidson stabs at the capital’s do-nothing sentiment, but his punch lacks the kind of pizzazz that pushes through legislation in an age where shareable memes drive change. He promises online to “hold Congress’ feet to the fire by insisting that they have the same health care as the [U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs],” which seems proficiently tongue-in-cheek (the VA plan is tragically awful), until I ask Davidson about it. “It’s not a joke,” he says, adding that it would force lawmakers to create a “high-functioning plan” by 2020. When I note that he’s been endorsed by Fair Tax groups, he hedges, insisting he’s just working for “simpler and flatter.” Davidson does show a glimmer of his wry writ when, as his wife, Lisa, tells the story of their youthful courtship by snail mail, he jabs knowingly at modern romance: “It takes a lot of Snapchats to get a full letter out.”
Even though outsider candidates like Davidson have performed well in races for vacant seats, the University of Virginia’s Kyle Kondik cautions that his victory doesn’t spell a nationwide trend. Incumbents still have huge advantages — even in the age of anti-establishment sentiment harnessed by Donald Trump on the presidential level. Still, the fact that Davidson doesn’t hold the kind of leadership position Boehner owned for so long may actually help him, Kondik adds. Davidson himself seems to sense this: “Voters were anxious to just have a regular Congressman,” he says. “A fresh set of ears.”