COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Republican Ohio House Speaker Jason Stephens is asserting that he controls his caucus and its campaign coffers, despite claims to the contrary by an unyielding, rival GOP group.
It's the latest chapter in a saga of infighting among the legislative chamber's Republican supermajority that is calling into question how lawmakers will function in the two-year session that began this month, which will include shaping Ohio's next state operating budget.
The feud broke out after Stephens snagged a surprising victory to become speaker earlier this month with mostly Democratic support and less than half of the Republican supermajority votes. The outcome shocked GOP Rep. Derek Merrin, a Lucas County Republican who believed he had already clinched the job in an informal vote before the holidays.
Stephens' spokesman, Aaron Mulvey, said the speaker does not accept public pronouncements by Merrin and his allies that Merrin won leadership of the GOP House caucus — which includes control of its campaign arm — in a vote held Tuesday. Merrin says a majority of the chamber's 67 Republicans voted him in during a closed-door meeting.
Stephens supporters note a long-standing tradition that the speaker is the leader of their party caucus, though legal experts told The Associated Press that Ohio law does not expressly require the speaker and caucus leader to be the same individual.
As evidence that Stephens is an official representative of the campaign arm, known as the Ohio House Republican Alliance, and has access to its funds, an unofficial political adviser to the speaker provided The Associated Press with an image of an OHRA credit card in Stephens’ name.
The alliance spent some $4.5 million on House candidates in the November general election, campaign finance records show. It also provided $1.8 million of in-kind contributions to campaigns, such as providing printing, office space or other services.
If Merrin were indeed the Republican caucus leader, it appeared to have little effect during Tuesday's House session. Stephens passed House rules further solidifying him as speaker with the support of Democrats and 32 Republicans, at least eight of whom had supported Merrin for speaker.
Stephens' allies characterize that vote as a sign that more Republicans are beginning to shift their support his way, while others said the vote was disconnected from the leadership fight.
Merrin's office has not responded to questions seeking clarity about the division, the caucus leadership vote and access to the OHRA funds.
Samantha Hendrickson is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.