Ohio’s senate could shift more conservative, depending on who voters elect in next week’s primary

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (Statehouse News Bureau) — When Ohio voters cast ballots on candidates in 16 state senate races next week, they’ll see some names that may be familiar. Still, only eleven of the 33 members of the Ohio Senate are incumbents who are up for re-election. And there are some heated races among them.

Control of the chamber is not up for grabs, as Democrats haven’t been in the majority since 1985. But the direction of the Senate and the legislation is takes up could be.

The Ohio Senate votes on a budget
The Ohio Senate votes on its budget. [Jo Ingles | Statehouse News Bureau]

The battle for a Southwest Ohio district

The Senate race that may be attracting the most attention is in Southwest Ohio. Sen. George Lang (R-West Chester) is a conservative who’s been business friendly—for instance, he recently supported a bill to allow companies to post required labor law notices online rather than on the premises.
“In a world where remote and hybrid working is becoming more common, we must ensure that all employers are afforded the flexibility to adhere to requirements regarding posting labor law notices, further applying the practical applicability allowing businesses to utilize 21st century technology,” Lang said on the Senate floor.
Lang is being challenged for a second time by far-right conservative Candace Keller of Middletown, who has been a lightning rod for controversy. When she served in the House, Keller sponsored controversial legislation and she didn’t shy away from making comments that riled her opponents. She also filed paperwork to join former Rep. Ron Hood as his running mate in the 2022 Republican primary for governor, but the pair did virtually no campaigning.
Keller operates an anti-abortion pregnancy center. She was an architect of the six-week abortion ban that likely was overturned by a reproductive rights amendment last fall. In a podcast after Issue 1 was approved, Keller suggested Republican lawmakers could pass bills to make abortions far more expensive or inconvenient.
“We are going to throw bill after bill after bill after bill and what you have to do, because you can’t reason with insanity, you just take them out. You continue to make them spend money, spend money, spend money that they don’t have, just like they do us,” Keller said in that podcast.

Keller falsely claims Donald Trump won the presidency in 2020, has referred Planned Parenthood as “Nazis,” derided teens who advocated for increased gun control after a Florida school shooting, publicly mocked mask mandates during the pandemic and has repeatedly made comments vilifying LGBTQ people.Keller and Lang are facing Mark Morgan, a businessman who worked under former RNC Chair Michael Steele and is active in the African American community.

Some Democrats and Republicans in the House want to move to the upper chamber

Some House Democrats are running for Senate. Rep. Beth Liston (D-Dublin) is campaigning for the seat being vacated by incumbent Sen. Stephanie Kunze (R-Hilliard). Kunze won her last re-election in a razor-tight race, as the district has become more competitive for Democrats. Rep. Casey Weinstein (D-Hudston) is running for the seat of term-limited veteran Sen. Vernon Sykes (D-Akron). Rep. Willis Blackshear (D-Dayton) wants to replace Sen. Niraj Antani (R-Miamisburg), who is running for the U.S. Congress.

A Republican who wants to replace Antani in the 6th District has not been serving in the House. Charlotte McGuire has been on the State Board of Education since 2017. That board is being stripped of some of its key duties now that a new law has established a new office under Gov. Mike DeWine’s purview. She’s expected to win that contest since another Republican, Ryan Riddell, a real estate agent, did not make the ballot.

Former lawmaker Kyle Koehler is running to fill the seat being vacated by the term-limited Sen. Bob Hackett (R-London). Koehler served in the House from 2015 to 2022. He won’t be the only Republican seeking to win that seat. Carolyn DeStefani, a Sugarcreek Township trustee, is also running.

In Northeast Ohio, a familiar face is seeking to take the seat of term-limited Sen. Matt Dolan (R-Chagrin Falls), who is running in the primary for the U.S. Senate. Rep. Tom Patton (R-Strongsville) has served in the House since 2017 but before that, he served in the Senate between 2008 and 2016.

Political scientists offer insight on the outcome of these races

Currently, there are seven Democrats in the Senate. And most political watchers don’t think that will change much. Ohio State University Professor Emeritus Paul Beck said, like the House, the current Senate map doesn’t favor Democrats.

“The contests in 2024 are going to be fought out over the current districting scheme. If there is redistricting that is much less favorable to the Republicans, much less gerrymandered, that won’t come until 2024,” Beck said.

University of Cincinnati political science professor David Niven said this primary is important for Republican lawmakers who are fighting among themselves.

“Democrats have been relegated to such a small role in the state legislature that in practical terms, there’s not meaningful Democratic opposition,” said Niven, who has worked for Democrats in the past. “But the Republicans have grown so big they have become their own worst enemy and that’s why this primary matters so much. They are running against each other and really running for effective control of government.”

A prime example is that of term-limited veteran conservative Matt Huffman (R-Lima), the Senate president who’s backed legislation on universal school vouchers and abortion restrictions. He’s running unopposed for the House and is expected to win and challenge Speaker Jason Stephens (R-Kitts Hill) for that position. If that happens, Niven said that would mean Huffman could push legislation that would be more to the liking of Christian conservatives.

“If these primaries are resolved in a way that unites the Republican caucus. You are looking at a tremendously reinvigorated ability to push legislation all the way to the right with no breaks,” Niven said.

Beck said it’s important to remember that the far right, Christian political agenda has been rejected by voters in the last two elections when the majority voted for reproductive rights and voted against making it harder for citizens groups to pass constitutional amendments.

“The Christian Nationalist agenda is something that, particularly in light of the constitutional amendment to protect abortion rights, it’s going to be hard for Republicans to achieve. So, we will see how that plays out,” Beck said.