Republican Rep. Brad Wenstrup's Thursday evening retirement announcement unexpectedly set off an open-seat race for Ohio's 2nd District, a longtime conservative bastion in the eastern Cincinnati suburbs. Donald Trump took this constituency 72-27, so whoever wins a plurality in the March 19 GOP primary should have no trouble holding it. But because the filing deadline is Dec. 20, Wenstrup's potential successors have only a few weeks to make up their minds.
Wenstrup himself got to Congress after pulling off a major primary upset against the infamous Rep. Jean Schmidt in 2012, when he made his second bid for office. Wenstrup, who worked as an orthopedic surgeon, was awarded a Bronze Star by the Army for his service as a combat surgeon in Iraq in 2005 and 2006. He also had a small, albeit apolitical, fanbase back in southern Ohio: When Cincinnati Enquirer reporter John Kiesewetter asked which local physicians fit the nickname "Dr. McDreamy" from "Grey's Anatomy," some readers submitted Wenstrup's name.
Wenstrup entered the officially nonpartisan 2009 contest for mayor of Cincinnati but lost to Democratic incumbent Mark Malloy, albeit by a respectable 54-46 margin. Though he said he didn't have any plans to enter another race, he would later tell the Enquirer his feelings changed after a religious retreat in early 2011. "One of the themes of the retreat was, 'What are you going to do with the rest of your life?’" he'd recount the next year. "I felt Congress was the place to be. It was the place where I could make a difference, and I wanted to go for it."
The incumbent he decided to challenge in the 2012 primary, though, seemed secure despite a rough tenure in office. Schmidt had struggled to win her initial 2005 special election against Democrat Paul Hackett months, even though George W. Bush had decisively carried the 2nd District—a poor performance she followed up with weak victories in both the 2006 and 2008 general elections. However, the woman nicknamed "Mean Jean" by her many enemies finally had an easy time during the 2010 red wave, suggesting that she had at last turned a corner.
The ultraconservative Schmidt, though, managed to alienate her base when she gave President Barack Obama a kiss on the cheek at the president's State of the Union address in 2012, a gesture that played badly in the tea party era. The House Ethics Committee had also determined that Schmidt had improperly taken $500,000 in legal services from a Turkish group.
On top of that, redistricting left Schmidt with a seat that was about a quarter new to her. A new super PAC called the Campaign for Primary Accountability, which had the stated goal of denying renomination to incumbents from both parties, got involved with a $50,000 radio and phone campaign attacking the congresswoman.
But it was still a major surprise when Wenstrup, who didn't air a single TV ad, racked up a 49-43 win that March—a result that made Schmidt the first member of Congress to lose reelection that cycle. "Jean has always had some tough races, but she’s always sort of hung on and won, so I guess I expected that again," fellow Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan told Roll Call after the votes were tallied. "It just wasn’t on my radar screen."
Observers realized in retrospect that it hadn't been on Schmidt's radar screen either. The congresswoman had gone on the air only in the final days of the race and even spent the morning of the primary in D.C. rather than campaigning at home. "She just didn't work it or take this seriously," one national GOP source told Politico hours after the dust had settled. (Schmidt eventually resurrected her career by winning a state House seat in 2020.) Wenstrup, unlike the congresswoman he'd just beaten, had no trouble in the general election, and he never struggled to hold the 2nd.
Wenstrup attracted national attention in 2017, when he treated Rep. Steve Scalise immediately after a gunman shot the Louisianan at practice for that year's congressional baseball game. "Happened to have Brad Wenstrup on the field that day, and he was one of the first to come to my side," Scalise would say when he returned to Congress months later. "Who would’ve thought that God would’ve put Brad out there on that field with me because the tourniquet he applied―many will tell you―saved my life so that I could actually make it to the hospital in time with all the blood loss."
Wenstrup would later sign on to the lawsuit alleging "unconstitutional irregularities involved in the 2020 presidential election," though he'd ultimately vote to recognize Joe Biden's win in the hours after the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. The congressman expressed interest a few weeks later in running to fill the seat held by retiring Sen. Rob Portman, but he ultimately decided to seek what would be his final term in the House.