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Ohio’s March primary highlights fracturing GOP House and state races riddled with party infighting

People fill out their ballots at the Summit County Board of Elections Early Vote Center in Downtown Akron on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
People fill out their ballots at the Summit County Board of Elections Early Vote Center in Downtown Akron on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023.

Despite wielding power in both chambers of the state Legislature, Ohio’s Republican lawmakers are far from coasting through this election season as incumbents face challengers from their own party in the midst of a bitter GOP power struggle.

Next month’s primary will likely be used to further wage the infighting that’s been steady in the state House since 2023, when a contentious House speaker race split the lower chamber’s Republicans. Even though GOP lawmakers hold supermajorities in both chambers, the Legislature succeeded in setting a record last year for the lowest number of bills passed since the 1950s.

Democrats are deciding a few contested primaries themselves, but even newly drawn Statehouse maps backed by both parties make it all but impossible for them to gain the majority in 2024.

All 99 seats in the Ohio House are up for grabs this year, as are 16 of the 33 seats in the Senate.

How is this infighting affecting the election season?

GOP House Speaker Jason Stephens won the speakership with the vote of 32 Democrats and 21 state House Republicans in January 2023. Nearly half of those Republicans are facing opponents in the primary March 19.

The rival camp, which supported Rep. Derek Merrin, a Monclova Republican, for speaker, dubbed those Republicans and Stephens, who voted for himself, the “Blue 22.” Those 22 have since been censured by the Ohio Republican Party, and the Merrin contingent has been drumming up support for their challengers.

As the House leader, Stephens has power over what legislation comes before the full chamber. He also controls over $3 million in campaign funds for his caucus through the Ohio House Republican Alliance. Merrin and his supporters are trying to change that via an ongoing lawsuit that would wrest that control away.

And while Merrin is term-limited and Stephens is unopposed in the primary, the current speaker still has a fight ahead of him. Current Senate President Matt Huffman, who is also term-limited, is running for the House and does not face a primary opponent.

Huffman has openly touted his desire to be speaker if elected, which is likely given the red nature of his Allen County district. The Lima Republican has also donated to the Merrin camp incumbents, and some of Huffman’s fellow conservative senators have publicly endorsed several of Stephens’ supporters’ challengers.

If the number of Stephens’ supporters dwindle, he could fail to keep the coveted speaker role. For now, Stephens is sitting comfortably on the alliance’s millions and nearly $760,000 in his personal campaign account. Huffman’s account stands at nearly $713,000.

What other primary battles are on the horizon?

Hamilton County Republican Rep. Bill Seitz decided not to seek reelection after a decades-long career in the Legislature. Vying for his seat are Democrats Stefanie Hawk and Daniel Voynovich, and lone Republican Mike Odioso — all from Cincinnati.

Former GOP Rep. Bob Young’s Summit County seat is also wide open following his resignation from the House last summer after he was found guilty of domestic violence against his wife in October of last year. Jack Daniels, a Republican from Akron, and Mary Stormer, a Republican from New Franklin, will face off for the GOP nominations. Jim Colopy, of Akron, is the only Democrat running for the seat.

Incumbent Rep. Elliot Forhan is currently under investigation for alleged violent and erratic behavior toward lawmakers, statehouse staff and constituents. He failed to win the endorsement of Cuyahoga County’s Democratic party and has faced criticism from his community.

Forhan is widely expected not to win his district’s primary and is facing several challengers, including Cleveland-area Democrats Angel Washington and Eric Synenberg. Republican Joshua Malovasic is also running.

Rep. Dave Dobos, a Columbus-area conservative, announced earlier this year that he would not seek reelection. Dobos came under fire when it was revealed that he had never graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as he’s claimed for decades and failed to disclose over $1 million in debt as part of a business dispute back in 2014.

Three Democrats are vying for Dobos’ seat: Ahmet Ali and Mark Sigrist, both of Grove City, and Sarah Pomeroy, of Columbus. Two Republicans, Shafi Ahmed, of Columbus, and Brian Garvine, of Grove City, are also on the primary ballot.

While the House is boasting some of the more closely watched races this year, one district in the Senate has some eyes turned to it, as it could give the minority Democrats another seat.

The Dayton-area district is now leaning more blue than previous years after the bipartisan redrawing of Statehouse maps, setting up a more exciting Democratic primary fight. The incumbent, Republican Sen. Niraj Antani, is not seeking reelection and is instead running for Congress.

Looking to fill the seat are Democrats Jyl Hall, of Kettering, and Jocelyn Rhynard, of Dayton, as well as current Rep. Willis Blackshear, also of Dayton. The one Republican on the primary ballot is Charlotte McGuire.