A schism between Ohio’s House Republicans appears to only be widening after a rival GOP-contingent sued fellow conservative House Speaker Jason Stephens to seize control of over $1 million in campaign funds.
State Rep. Derek Merrin, of Monclova, filed a lawsuit in Franklin County Common Pleas Court Saturday against Stephens for control over the Ohio House Republican Alliance and its coffers that fund campaigns for state Republican legislators — the latest development in the saga of GOP-supermajority infighting that’s wracked the legislative chamber for nearly a year.
Merrin, alongside avid supporters Reps. Phil Plummer and Ron Ferguson, also Republicans, argue in the lawsuit that Merrin is the leader of the alliance after a closed-door vote by the majority of the House Republican caucus earlier this year. Therefore, he leads the alliance and has authority over distributing its funds, which are expected to grow as campaign season revs up.
Stephens supporters have noted that, traditionally, the speaker is the leader of their party caucus, though legal experts previously told The Associated Press that Ohio law does not expressly require the speaker and caucus leader to be the same person.
The plaintiffs are also suing for nearly $400,000 in reimbursements and damages, alleging that Stephens backtracked on a deal reached earlier this year for Plummer and Stephens supporter GOP Rep. Jeff LaRe to co-chair the alliance — meaning any spending of the campaign funds would first have to be approved by both LaRe and Plummer.
In the lawsuit, Merrin and company said Stephens and LaRe, who is also being sued, hired staff and discussed funding House candidate campaigns, among other alliance business without Plummer’s involvement.
The representatives’ lawyer, Lisa Ferguson, Ron Ferguson’s mother, could not be reached for comment.
In a joint statement, Stephens and LaRe called the lawsuit “nothing more than the desperate antics of a handful of self-promoting individuals.”
“Their actions amount to nothing but a petty distraction from the real work being done to support the well-being of their fellow Ohioans and the Republican Party they claim to represent,” the lawmakers said in the statement.
Rumblings of a lawsuit against Stephens have circulated in the Statehouse since January, when, in a surprising turn of events, the rural Southern Ohio Republican snagged the leadership seat with mostly Democratic support.
The outcome came as a shock to Merrin, believed to be a shoo-in for speaker after an informal vote in late 2022.
Thus, a public feud between supporters of Merrin and Stephens launched, though competing claims of Republican leadership died down during the tedious state budget process.
However, Stephens is likely facing another threat to his position fairly soon. GOP Senate President Matt Huffman, who is term-limited in his Senate seat, has openly touted he’s vying for speakership when he runs for the House next year.
Huffman has already been drumming up support from Stephens’ rivals in the House for such a challenge, and losing control of the alliance and its funds could significantly weaken the speaker’s chances of staying in leadership.