State Rep. Derek Merrin and his allies filed a lawsuit in state court over the weekend to try and claim control of the powerful Ohio House Republican Alliance from state House Speaker Jason Stephens’ side, a move that comes nine months after Democrats joined with a minority of GOP members to elect Stephens over Merrin.
OHRA finished June with $1.1 million in the bank, and the legal battle could determine if its funds are used to help or hurt the Stephens backers who are already attracting challengers for their March primaries. The matter may not be settled until long after that, though, because the judge has set the trial for October of next year. Still, the Associated Press’ Samantha Hendrickson writes that a legal defeat for Stephens could make it tougher for him to exert enough power to survive an all-but-inevitable leadership challenge following the 2024 elections.
Merrin began 2023 as his party’s official choice to lead a chamber where Republicans hold 67 of the 99 seats, but Stephens and 21 other Republicans unexpectedly joined all 32 Democrats to make Stephens speaker. Merrin responded by accusing those Republican dissenters of “ramp[ing] up their efforts” for the top job when they learned their rival was busy caring for his dying father.
Stephens went on to approve rules that give Democrats more representation on committees and let Minority Leader Allison Russo choose members for special committees, but his leadership hardly was the start of a bipartisan age. Republicans came together in May to place an amendment on the August ballot to make it harder to change the state constitutional again; Stephens responded to its stinging defeat at the ballot box by pledging to beat this fall’s abortion rights amendment, declaring, “As a 100% pro-life conservative, we must defeat Issue 1 on Nov. 7 to stop abortion from being a part of our state’s constitution.”
Hardliners, though, still had little patience for their unwanted speaker. The state party’s central committee in January censured Stephens and his 21 allies, a faction one official dubbed “the Blue 22.” The state branch of the Koch network’s Americans for Prosperity additionally launched a $200,000 digital and mail offensive against half of them in August.
Stephens and Merrin also wasted no time feuding over who would have access to the official corporate debit cards that allow them to spend the OHRA’s money: Stephens’ people insisted he has this power because the speaker has traditionally also been the leader of the majority caucus, while Merrin emphasized that a majority of that caucus elected him its chair. The two factions reached an agreement in April to give them joint custody, though no one acted like this was the end of the party’s public feud.
Things escalated over the weekend when Merrin and two fellow state representatives filed their lawsuit alleging that Stephens’ side “immediately reneged” on their deal and spent over $280,000 without the requisite joint approval. The plaintiffs are asking the judge for full control of OHRA, plus about $400,000 for reimbursement, damages, and legal fees. Stephens, for his part, dismissed the suit as “nothing more than the desperate antics of a handful of self-promoting individuals.”
But no matter how things turn out with the suit and the upcoming primaries, Stephens is likely to face a serious challenge to his speakership in January of 2025―just not from Merrin. Hendrickson writes that state Senate President Matt Huffman, who is termed out of the upper chamber, not only plans to run for the state House, but that he’s “openly touted he’s vying for speakership.” Merrin, for his part, is also term-limited and thus won’t be around to oppose Stephens.