Upset in Ohio as Dems join GOP to pick new House Speaker

State Rep. Jason Stephens (R) pulled off the upset with the help of House Democrats.
Ohio House Speaker Jason Stephens (R) won the gavel with help from legislative Democrats. (Photo courtesy Ohio House of Representatives)

A coalition of Republicans joined with Democrats to pick a new speaker of the state House on Tuesday, bucking a majority of Republicans who voted last month for a different candidate.

The Republican and Democratic coalition voted Tuesday to tap state Rep. Jason Stephens (R) to succeed Speaker Robert Cupp (R), who did not seek re-election last year. Stephens took 54 votes, beating state Rep. Derek Merrin (R) by an 11-vote margin.

Republicans voting last month had picked Merrin as their speaker nominee in a closed-door session. Merrin, who had support from conservative organizations in the state, was an unexpected winner after winning the backing of a third candidate, state Rep. Phil Plummer (R).

Ratings in 2021 from the American Conservative Union, a group that evaluates state legislators based on their votes on conservative legislation, showed Stephens and Merrin received identical scores. The Ohio Chamber of Commerce named both members to their 2021 list of Champions of Business.

Ohio political observers said some Republicans were anxious about angering labor unions, who still play a substantial role in state politics, if they backed Merrin. Merrin had been open to passing right-to-work legislation, which limits the ability of labor unions to collect dues.

“Jason Stephens has a much better political team, and them outmaneuvering Merrin was the most likely scenario,” said one top Ohio Republican strategist, who asked for anonymity to avoid angering lawmakers. “This probably means we will have a more traditional House caucus than one under a Speaker Merrin.”

The strategist said the move will likely give Stephens six years as speaker before he faces term limits. Some in Ohio speculate that Senate President Matt Huffman (R) was planning to run for a seat in the state House after he hits his own term limits, positioning him to become speaker for an even longer tenure.

Stephens will run a state House chamber that remains firmly in Republican hands. Republicans won 67 of 99 seats in the lower chamber, increasing their majority by three seats after the Republican-controlled redistricting commission passed new maps favorable to the majority. 

Stephens, in office since 2019, represents several rural counties along Ohio’s southern borders with Kentucky and West Virginia. 

The unexpected result is not unique in Ohio history. In 2019, state Rep. Larry Householder (R) unseated Speaker Ryan Smith (R) by putting together a coalition of 26 Republicans and 26 Democrats. 

Householder’s term did not end well: He was indicted months later in a federal bribery case and expelled by the state House. Householder will go on trial on racketeering charges this month.