John Milan Ashbrook was born in Johnstown, Ohio, the son of William Albert Ashbrook, a U.S. congressman and businessman, and Marie Swank. He joined the U.S. Navy in 1946, after graduating from high school, and served until 1948. He was a member of Admiral Richard E. Byrd’s final Antarctic expedition. He received an A.B. with honors from Harvard University in 1952, and a J.D. from Ohio State University Law School in 1955. By 1953 he had succeeded his father as publisher of the Johnstown Independent, a weekly newspaper founded in 1884.
Ashbrook’s newspaper career ensured him wide public exposure, and in 1956 he was elected as a Republican to the Ohio General Assembly where he served two terms. A vacancy led him to seek election to Congress from the Seventeenth District in 1960. He served on the House Internal Security Committee (formerly the House Committee on Un-American Activities) and on the Education and Labor Committee.
Ashbrook was chairman of the Young Republican National Federation from 1957 to 1959; one of the founders of the American Conservative Union, serving as chairman from 1966 to 1971; and on the Steering Committee of the Committee of One Million against the Admission of Communist China to the United Nations, whose campaign began in 1953.
At the end of 1971, Ashbrook announced his intention to oppose Nixon’s renomination in a number of Republican primaries. Although unsuccessful, Ashbrook’s conservative challenge to an incumbent Republican president paved the way for Ronald Reagan’s challenge to Gerald Ford’s nomination in 1976. That challenge fell short, but it cleared the way for Reagan’s successful nomination and election in 1980. Reagan became the beneficiary of a new conservative majority that Ashbrook had helped create.
In 1982, Ashbrook announced that he would seek the Republican nomination to oppose the incumbent Democratic senator Howard Metzenbaum, and most political observers thought that he would win the GOP nomination. However, while campaigning in March, he collapsed in Mansfield, Ohio, and died a month later in his office in Johnstown.
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