CANTON, Ohio — House Minority Leader John Boehner climbed off the back of a flatbed truck Saturday and into the arms of a welcoming crowd looking confident and at ease despite facing the biggest election of his career Tuesday.
If all goes well for the Ohio Republican, by Wednesday morning he will be poised to become Speaker.
“We have rosaries!” shouted two women trailing Boehner as he made his way to a charter bus plastered with campaign signs for Ohio candidates.
Perhaps sensing the prayer beads could be of some use, a volunteer accepted the gifts as the Minority Leader disappeared into the vehicle.
The stop in Canton, an event for Republican Congressional candidate Jim Renacci, was one of 20 that Boehner attended over the weekend in an eleventh-hour push around his home state to encourage Republican volunteers to keep working until the polls close.
The night before the Renacci rally, Boehner sat next to Rep. Jim Jordan onstage at the Allen County Republican Party’s barbecue chicken dinner and chatted about the excitement he had seen on the campaign trail.
When asked to compare the 2010 election with that of 1994, Boehner told Roll Call, “It’s bigger.”
Boehner has spent the past decade forging his power base after he was cast out of the Republican leadership in the aftermath of the 1998 elections.
During his tenure as the Republican leader in the House, a position he won in 2006, Boehner has surrounded himself with longtime political allies but has taken care to bring potential adversaries, such as Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.), into the leadership circle to defuse attacks from the right.
His campaign for Speaker has been carefully managed as well, beginning in February and gaining steam rhetorically and financially as the year went on.
“I think he has certainly prepared himself for this moment, this is his moment,” former Sen. Mike DeWine told Roll Call at an event this weekend. “We are very excited as Ohioans, we are very excited about it. It’s a great thing for the state, and it’s a great thing for the country.”
DeWine added, “The interesting thing is that Ohio could play a major role in making him Speaker.”
Two Democratic seats in the Buckeye State are currently rated as likely Republican and three more are tossups, according to CQ Politics.
Ohio Republicans are optimistic that even more races could switch to their favor when voters go to the polls.
Jordan, a favorite to lead the Republican Study Committee in the 112th Congress, said Boehner’s ability to keep Republicans together on votes such as the stimulus and health care reform shows that he will be an effective leader of the future, more conservative Republican Conference.
Jordan added that a Boehner speakership would be especially exciting for Ohio Republicans.
“Here’s a guy from our team; I mean it’s like when your high school football team is going to the state championship, it’s your team,” Jordan said. “He’s a part of our team.”
The significance of his home state’s role in his pursuit of the Speaker’s gavel was not lost on others who gathered at rallies.
“To realize that America has the opportunity to have our very own Ohio Congressman, John Boehner, to serve as the Speaker of the House is just ultimately huge,” said Keith Cheney, the executive chairman of the Allen County Republican Party in Lima.
“He is the leader of the Republican revolution,” Cheney added.
Curt Braden, a voter who attended the Canton rally, said Boehner’s speakership would help keep Ohio in the forefront of national politics.
“Yeah, I think it would mean a lot,” Braden said. “Ohio seems to be a focal point in all the national elections.”
One Member who spoke on condition of anonymity said Boehner will face extraordinary pressure if Republicans win the House because the public will expect the party to deliver on its promises.
Anti-establishment tea party candidates who win their elections could also pose a problem for Boehner. For example, Boehner joined controversial tea party favorite Rich Iott at a rally for volunteers in Lucas County on Saturday morning. Afterward, Iott refused to say whether he would support Boehner for Speaker should the GOP win control of the House.
“I don’t know, we’ll have to wait and see,” Iott told Roll Call.
Boehner has received heavy criticism for his continued support for Iott after the Atlantic magazine published photos of the Republican candidate wearing an SS uniform in a re-enactment event. Across the street from the event at the Lucas County Republican headquarters, Toledo resident Michael Kuhel stood with about a dozen protesters, all of whom were less than thrilled about the prospect of a Boehner speakership.
“He doesn’t want an auto industry,” said Kuhel, a member of the United Auto Workers. “If you look at his record, he’s for big business and corporate greed, that’s all.”
Toledo may have given Boehner a chilly reception, but across the state in picturesque Hanoverton, he received a hero’s welcome at a rally for Republican Congressional candidate Bill Johnson.
Dressed in a red, white and blue top hat and matching jersey, Sharon Jennings fit in with the patriotic decorations adorning the historic Spread Eagle Tavern.
Jennings, a member of the local tea party group, called Boehner “wonderful.” “He stood up on the [House] floor and threw that health care bill down,” she said. “I think he’ll make a wonderful Speaker.”
Johnson, who hopes to unseat Rep. Charlie Wilson (D), said Boehner’s visit gave his campaign a “shot in the arm.”
“It means so much to me,” he told reporters after Boehner left. “It validates to us that we’ve been taken seriously, and we are just very proud that he chose to come through.”
Asked about the stakes of the election before the rally, Boehner paused and signed the tavern’s guest book.
Looking up, he asked, “For me personally?
“Obviously there is a lot riding on this election,” he told Roll Call before turning and walking outside to address the waiting crowd.