Amid GOP infighting, judge strips Ohio House speaker of control over Republican caucus campaign fund

FILE - Ohio House Speaker Jason Stephens speaks to members of the media following a session of the Ohio House of Representatives in the Ohio Statehouse House Chamber on Wednesday, April 24, 2024, in Columbus, Ohio. A county judge stripped Stephens of his control over the GOP caucus’ campaign fund on Friday, June 21, 2024, escalating intraparty tensions in the chamber headed into November’s election. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A county judge stripped Republican Ohio House Speaker Jason Stephens of his control over the GOP caucus’ campaign fund on Friday, escalating intraparty tensions in the chamber headed into November’s election.

Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Mark Serrott issued his preliminary injunction from the bench in a lawsuit filed against Stephens in October by a rival GOP contingent. The dispute was prompted by Stephens, a fellow conservative, relying on the combined votes of all House Democrats and just a minority of House Republicans to win the speakership.

Serrott said the faction representing a majority of the House Republican caucus should make decisions about the fund, since majorities rule in a democracy, in order to comply with state law.

Stephens vowed to swiftly appeal.

“It is imperative for the integrity of the institution of the Ohio House of Representatives that control of the campaign committee not be able to be leveraged against the highest elected official in the House on a whim,” he said in a statement. “The decision potentially sets a concerning precedent that any member at any time an call a vote that undermines the control of the campaign funds.”

In their lawsuit, Republican state Reps. Derek Merrin, Phil Plummer and Ron Ferguson pointed out that Merrin was chosen by a majority of House Republicans as leader of the campaign fund, named the Ohio House Republican Alliance, in a closed-door vote last year. Therefore, his group should lead the alliance and has authority over distributing its funds, they told the court.

Merrin had earned the provisional nod of the caucus to become speaker, before Stephens’ surprise win. Merrin is now a Trump-endorsed candidate for Congress in Ohio’s 9th District, facing long-time Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur in November. Serrott’s order places Plummer, who won a subsequent caucus vote to oversee the caucus fund, in charge of the alliance while the lawsuit plays out. A trial is scheduled for October.

Stephens has so far controlled the campaign fund, as has been longstanding tradition for the speaker. The fund raised and spent about $4.7 million since last year, according to campaign finance reports. It waged ad campaigns against Republicans who ran against Stephens supporters and others allied with the Merrin camp in this year’s primaries. All but four of his allies won their primaries, setting him up to retain the votes to remain speaker next year.

The rival camp is friendly with Senate President Matt Huffman, a term-limited Republican who is running to return to the House and then to try to defeat Stephens for the speakership next year.

All the infighting has stymied lawmaking in Ohio since last year, as disagreements, impasses and general confusion have led to one of the least productive legislative sessions on record. Republican Gov. Mike DeWine has twice tried to use his influence to spur legislative deal-making — once on recreational marijuana implementation, once on a ballot snag impacting President Joe Biden’s place on the state ballot. Both efforts failed.