Ohio GOP’s intraparty power battle

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 18, 2023

Supporters of  Merrin take issue with Stephens’ win

COLUMBUS (AP) — A battle for political control of the Ohio House has laid bare the risks the Republican Party faces as factions of its legislative supermajority square off more over tactics and the willingness to thwart long held institutional norms than policy.

Six weeks ago, Republican Jason Stephens, a second-term representative from rural southern Ohio, scored a surprise bipartisan win for speaker over Rep. Derek Merrin. Since then, Stephens’ detractors have grabbed headline after headline for their maneuvers — even as a single piece of legislation is yet to be introduced. That includes the crucial and time-sensitive state budget.

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And the clashes appear far from over. With Stephens preparing finally to unveil Republicans’ session priorities Wednesday, a group of GOP lawmakers lined up against him — calling themselves “the Republican Majority Caucus” — have not ruled out suing him for control of the caucus campaign fund.

The faction wants a judge to clarify whether the House speaker and the head of the caucus need necessarily be the same person. While Ohio law does not seem to require it, Stephens has asserted he is both.

“I’m the speaker of the House, the head of the Republican caucus, and I’m excited for us to get ready

and move forward,” Stephens told reporters after successfully passing House rules Jan. 24 during a typically boring procedural session-turned-raucous.

“We now have our House in order,” he declared, even as Merrin backers stood nearby alleging constitutional and rules violations. Those included that Stephens had failed to let them speak on the floor — a time-honored tool of speakers everywhere — and begun the session at 2:05 p.m. rather than 2 p.m.

It’s all part of a growing line of attacks against Stephens and the Republican representatives who supported him that is roiling lawmaking in a state where the GOP rules every branch of state government and twice chose Republican Donald Trump for president by wide margins.

The fight has included a declared takeover of the GOP caucus by Merrin’s camp, a call for Stephens’ resignation, censure of Stephens and his GOP supporters by the Ohio Republican Party’s central committee and attack ads by one of several same-party PACs that are starting now to fight their reelections.

“There’s a lot of people right now who don’t feel like they have a voice, because the Democrats elected the speaker of the House,” Merrin told reporters the day he declared himself in charge of the caucus and its fundraising operation, despite Stephens’ election. The Associated Press has not yet received records on that closed-door vote in response to its requests.

Fracturing is a known risk of supermajority rule.

Aristotle Hutras, who served as executive secretary to the late Democratic Ohio House Speaker Vernal Riffe, who led the chamber from 1975 to 1995, recalled the legendary Ohio politician worrying aloud after his party won 62 of 99 seats in 1982: “It might be too many, boys.” Republicans this year have 67.

“Even Vern Riffe, historically the longest serving speaker in Ohio history, knew it could be difficult governing with too much of a majority,” said Hutras, who was a young caucus staffer in 1982. “When there are too many in a caucus, every man is a king.”

Hutras said Riffe resolved conflict quickly by getting straight to work.

Merrin’s group believes math is on their side. Forty-three of 67 House Republicans supported him for speaker, a clear majority of the caucus. But 22 broke off and supported Stephens, defying results of an informal speaker vote in November and teaming with all 32 House Democrats.

Clearly perplexed, angry and stung, the Merrin camp went on the attack. Though Merrin is term-limited in two years, many of his allies are new lawmakers whose ability to make their marks could depend on caucus financial support.

They asked the state party’s central committee to condemn Stephens and those who voted for him, including withholding future party endorsements and campaign cash. The panel didn’t go quite that far, but they did vote to censure the 22 lawmakers — as they had after then-U.S. Rep. Anthony Gonzalez voted in favor of Trump’s impeachment.

Their resolution cast Democrats as the enemy, with a “dangerous and perverse” agenda that Stephens and the others had now prevented Republicans from blocking.

Targeted lawmakers pushed back. State Rep. Bill Seitz, a long-serving Cincinnati Republican, said his record as a conservative was clear. State Rep. Sara Carruthers chided Merrin in a Dayton Daily News interview, calling him a crybaby who couldn’t stand being outmaneuvered.

State Rep. Jon Cross quipped to the USA Today Network’s Ohio bureau, “What you’re telling me is I’m a Republican that voted for a Republican speaker and the state Republican party is censuring me? Sounds like the dipsh–s are running the insane asylum.”

The Ironton Tribune, located in the seat of the county where Stephens is a former commissioner and auditor, called the censure “juvenile” and “politics at its worst.”

“(T)here seems to be no interest in turning down the outlandish rhetoric and acting like the adults in the room,” they wrote.

The paper called on Republican Gov. Mike DeWine to speak out and urge the party to “move toward actually getting things done in Columbus.”

DeWine, an establishment Republican whose support for Trump has been tepid, has faced his own share of run-ins with the state central committee — where opponents of his aggressive early response to the coronavirus have grown in their numbers. He said he was staying out of it.

His budget bill, a $57.5 billion blueprint for state spending over the two years beginning July 1, is among House bills that are yet to materialize — though some committee activity has begun on the proposal.

Stephens’ and Merrin’s differences appear largely to surround stylistic decisions, including how quickly a measure to the ballot that would make it harder to amend Ohio’s constitution should be pushed and whether to fully eliminate Ohio’s income tax, for example.

A key exception is with regard to unions. Stephens questions a so-called “backpack bill” that would extend Ohio’s vouchers to every schoolchild, including those attending private schools, and appears to have rejected bringing an anti-union “right to work” bill this session, which had been a Merrin priority.

Groups touting parents’ rights, a burgeoning Republican priority nationally, have used union donations to try to link Stephens and his leadership team to former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, who’s on trial for corruption in Cincinnati. They cast the group as in the pocket of “Big Labor,” including the same teachers’ unions that supported Householder and have opposed the backpack bill.

“Conservatives in Ohio are aghast at the backroom deal-making that led to the speakership of Jason Stephens,” said former U.S. Senate candidate and Ohio Strong Action PAC Chair Mike Gibbons. “Because we have seen time and again, these deals end up sacrificing principled conservative policy.”

He said he represents a group of conservative leaders, and groups that have a clear agenda. They are pushing to retire Ohio’s income tax and for a suite of bills that died last session, including the backpack bill, a ban on transgender student-athletes in girls sports and one prohibiting gender affirming surgeries to minors.

They also back a ballot proposal that would raise the threshold for changing Ohio’s constitution from 50% to 60%. That idea arose suddenly during last year’s lameduck session, just as issues guaranteeing abortion rights, reforming redistricting and legalizing recreational marijuana were being contemplated. Then-Speaker Bob Cupp, also a Republican, declined to bring the issue to the floor for a lack of votes. Under Stephens, the House missed a Feb. 1 cutoff for getting it on the spring ballot.

Gibbons said his coalition will be bringing its issues “straight to the voters of Ohio, making the case” in the coming weeks.