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    4 Ohio Republican lawmakers lost seats in primary amid bitter leadership battle

    By Jessie Balmert, Cincinnati Enquirer,


    An internal battle over who should lead the Ohio House of Representatives unseated four Republican lawmakers − a loss for the current Speaker Jason Stephens.

    Whether Stephens, R-Kitts Hill, can hold onto the powerful speaker's gavel in 2025 depends on several factors, including how Republicans perform against Democratic challengers in November and whether any of his current supporters jump ship. House Republicans won't choose their preferred leader until later this year and the official vote will be in January.

    "No one can stand here and declare absolute victory," said Rep. Ron Ferguson, R-Wintersville. "No one can stand here and declare absolute defeat."

    Still, Stephens lost at least four votes in his favor in Tuesday's primary. That only benefits Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman, a Lima Republican returning to the House aiming to replace Stephens. "I would say anybody supportive of changing speakers was a winner," Ferguson said.

    But GOP strategist Jai Chabria said Stephens can weather those losses because he's gained supporters over the past year. "I have zero reason to doubt that Jason Stephens is going to be the speaker for the foreseeable future."

    Prep for the polls: See who is running for president and compare where they stand on key issues in our Voter Guide

    While the GOP speaker fight might seem like inside baseball, the position wields tremendous power over which bills pass and which die in committee. The fate of Ohioans' taxes, firearms, abortion access, marijuana sales, children's social media use and more is decided on the floor of the state Legislature.

    What happened to the 'Blue 22?'

    In January 2023, Stephens won the speaker's gavel with votes from 22 Republicans and all 32 Democrats in the House, a move that enraged GOP lawmakers backing a different candidate: Toledo-area Rep. Derek Merrin.

    The Republicans who backed Stephens got to pick the House's next leader, but they also faced backlash in the form of censure from the Ohio Republican Party, primary challengers for 12 of them and a disparaging moniker: "the Blue 22."

    "It's very, very difficult to lead and legislate when he was elected in the manner that he was," Huffman told reporters.

    On Tuesday, four of the "Blue 22" lost their primaries, including a member of Stephens' leadership team. They were Assistant Majority Floor Leader Jon Cross, of Kenton; and Reps. Sara Carruthers, of Hamilton; Brett Hillyer, of Uhrichsville; and Gail Pavliga, of Portage County.

    “Team Stephens suffered a blow that night," said Donovan O'Neil, state director for Americans for Prosperity-Ohio, which campaigned against the GOP incumbents. Cross, in particular, had sparred with AFP. "Jon Cross’ policy positions didn’t match with what the voters wanted.”

    But eight incumbents who backed Stephens held onto their seats, including Reps. Cindy Abrams, of Harrison; Haraz Ghanbari, of Perrysburg; Jeff LaRe, of Violet Township; and Kevin Miller, of Newark.

    The House GOP's campaign arm, called the Ohio House Republican Alliance, spent at least $3 million defending 16 incumbent candidates, including several who did not vote for Stephens for speaker, according to campaign finance records.

    Meanwhile, several Huffman-backed candidates won in seats where no incumbent was running. For example, businessman Mark Hiner defeated Scott Pullins, whom Stephens supported, for a seat that includes Knox, Coshocton and Holmes counties.

    Another quirk is whether an Ohio House Republican will run for a soon-to-be-open state Senate seat in the Mahoning Valley. State Sen. Michael Rulli, R-Salem, won the GOP primary to replace U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson and will compete in a special election.

    In the days after the primary, supporters of Huffman's and Stephens' bids counted their votes, each projecting confidence that they had the 50-plus needed to win the gavel.

    "I believe we have an excellent opportunity in front of us to retain and expand the Republican majority in the House this fall," Stephens said at the Impact Ohio Post-Primary Conference Thursday. He then highlighted a handful of GOP primary victories and left without talking to reporters.

    Stephens' path relies on support from Democrats, but both hopefuls will need to account for the minority party, which played a role in electing two of the last three speakers. "I absolutely will be speaking to Democrats," Huffman said.

    Jessie Balmert is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.

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