Head of fractured Ohio House loses some GOP allies, but may yet keep leadership role amid infighting

FILE - Republican Ohio House Speaker Jason Stephens speaks to reporters, May 9, 2023, at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. Foes of Stephens picked off four of his allies, including one of his leadership team, in the primaries on Tuesday, March 19, 2024, though were still one shy of the number needed to obliterate his majority in the next legislative session. But a bitter battle for control of the chamber still looms. (AP Photo/Julie Carr Smyth, File)

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Foes of Republican Ohio House Speaker Jason Stephens picked off four of his allies, including one of his leadership team, in primary elections, though were still one shy of the number needed to obliterate his majority in the next legislative session. But a bitter battle for control of the chamber still looms.

Stephens’ term-limited counterpart in the Legislature’s upper chamber, Senate President Matt Huffman, who was unopposed in Tuesday’s primary for a House district in western Ohio and is on an unobstructed path to win the seat this fall, has openly touted his desire to be speaker.

The intraparty skirmishing has played out in ads, endorsements and campaign donations throughout the primary campaign season, though it started with Stephens’ win of a contentious speaker race in January 2023.

Huffman, a Republican from Lima, has donated to incumbents who voted for Stephens’ opponent in the race for speaker, state Rep. Derek Merrin, according to campaign finance records. Those incumbents continue to decry Stephens’ speakership. Some of Huffman’s fellow conservative senators also publicly endorsed several challengers to Stephens’ supporters.

Utilizing the millions he controls in the Ohio House Republican Alliance’s campaign funds, Stephens waged ad campaigns attacking Republicans who ran against his supporters as well those who have been dubbed “the Merrin camp.” Merrin and supporters Reps. Phil Plummer and Ron Ferguson are trying to wrest that control away via an ongoing lawsuit.

The Republican infighting has persisted since the speaker race last year, and despite GOP lawmakers holding supermajorities in both chambers, the Legislature succeeded in setting a record last year for the lowest number of bills passed since the 1950s.

Stephens won the speakership with the vote of 32 Democrats and 21 state House Republicans.

Around half of Stephens’ original supporters, labeled the “Blue 22” when counted alongside Stephens, faced opponents in Tuesday’s primary who were boosted by endorsements and monetary donations from members of the Merrin camp.

To maintain his slim balance of power, which he holds on to mostly by maintaining House Democratic support, Stephens could only afford to lose four of the Blue 22 in the primary, which is the exact number he did lose. He still retains a 50-49 majority in the 99-member House, where he’s picked up a few more supporters since the speaker race to make up for those who weren’t running for reelection.

In Tuesday’s primary, the closest loss was that of Rep. Sara Carruthers from Butler County, who lost to challenger Diane Mullins, a pastor who has referenced antisemitic conspiracy theories in her church and told her congregation not to consume secular news. Mullins defeated Carruthers with 53% of the vote.

Others lost by wider margins.

Eastern Ohio state Rep. Brett Hillyer was defeated by Jodi Salvo, director of substance use prevention services at OhioGuidestone, who captured 59% of the vote; Rep. Gail Pavliga of Portage County lost to Heidi Workman, a self-employed business professional who grabbed 61% of the vote; Rep. Jon Cross of Hancock County lost to National Guard member Ty Mathews, who received 66%. Cross was assistant majority floor leader, meaning Stephens will need to replace him in 2025.

Merrin, who is term-limited in the state House, is now the Republican nominee for Ohio’s 9th Congressional District, with former President Donald Trump’s endorsement, and will face Democratic U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur in the November general election.

Bitter election attacks in the quest for House control are nothing new in Ohio.

The most dramatic example came in 2018, when former Speaker Larry Householder spent hundreds of millions of dollars in what turned out to be bribe money from Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp. to elect his allies, secure his speakership and pass House Bill 6, a $1 billion bailout of nuclear plants owned by a FirstEnergy subsidiary.

The legislation was at the center of what became the largest corruption scandal in Ohio’s history, for which Householder is serving 20 years in prison. He has appealed the sentence.


Samantha Hendrickson is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.