The Republican war for control of Ohio’s Statehouse is bringing in money and interest in primary races

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (Statehouse News Bureau) — A battle among Republicans hangs over tomorrow’s primary races for Ohio House and Senate. 11 of the 22 Republicans who joined all 32 Democrats in voting for Jason Stephens (R-Kitts Hill) for House speaker over Derek Merrin (R-Napoleon) last year are facing primary challengers, and the Senate president is likely headed to the House to continue that battle. So there’s a lot of money and interest in those contests.

Americans for Prosperity, the conservative group founded by Charles and David Koch, is spending money in some primaries. AFP-Ohio has endorsed challengers in four House races: Sally Culling over Rep. Haraz Ghanbari (R-Perrysburg), Ty Mathews over Rep. Jon Cross (R-Findlay), Wezlynn Davis over Rep. Tracy Richardson (R-Marysville) and Daniel Kalmbach over Rep. Kevin Miller (R-Newark). These incumbents all voted for Stephens over Merrin. But the Ohio state director said the Stephens-Merrin battle isn’t the reason why the group is backing the newcomers over the incumbents.

“For us, it’s not just about getting Republicans elected. It’s about advancing a bold conservative policy agenda. So for some folks in this election, this is a referendum on a minority of Republicans who joined a majority of Democrats to elect a speaker,” said Donovan O’Neil with AFP-Ohio. “I see it as a referendum on a series of bad votes members have taken session after session.”

AFP has endorsed in 18 state House and Senate contests. The group endorsed Sens. George Lang (R-West Chester) and Sandra O’Brien (R-Ashtabula), who are both in contested primaries against people with experience in the Ohio House. Lang is facing Republican former Rep. Candace Keller, and O’Brien is being challenged by Rep. Mike Loychik (R-Bazetta).

Also weighing in is Make Liberty Win, a conservative group working in several legislative races around the country. The group set up a page of its website opposing Rep. Jeff LaRe (R-Violet Township) and sent out mailers to voters calling LaRe a “Democrat double agent” because he voted for Stephens over Merrin. The group is not endorsing a candidate in that district, but is supporting Rep. Beth Lear (R-Galena) and Republican candidates in contested primaries for three open House seats.

Newly elected House Speaker Jason Stephens (left) and Senate President Matt Huffman (right) talk in the House chambers during a break on January 3, 2023, the first day of the 135th General Assembly.
Newly elected House Speaker Jason Stephens (R-Kitts Hill, left) and Senate President Matt Huffman (R-Lima) talk in the House chambers during a break on January 3, 2023, the first day of the 135th General Assembly. [Karen Kasler | Statehouse News Bureau]
Senate President Matt Huffman (R-Lima) also is involved in some House races. He’s running unopposed for the House in the primary and the Democrat who had filed in that district had insufficient signatures to make the ballot. Stephens has no opponents in the primary and no Democrat has filed in that district, so it’s expected that Huffman will challenge Stephens for speaker.

Merrin is term-limited and couldn’t run again for the House. He’s now in a three-way primary for the Republican nomination for the 9th Congressional district. That contest had included four candidates, but controversial Trump-aligned candidate J.R. Majewski dropped out after making some derogatory comments about Special Olympians. That left Merrin, former Sen. Craig Riedel and former Napoleon mayor Steve Lankenau, with the winner to take on Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Toledo), the longest-serving woman in Congress.

Merrin’s supporters had sued to get control over $3 million in the House Republicans’ campaign fund, but a Franklin County judge ruled for Stephens’ side.