Moderate Jason Stephens elected as next Ohio House speaker in surprise upset

In a surprise turn of events, the Republican-dominated Ohio House elects moderate conservative Jason Stephens (R-Kitts Hill) as the next House speaker.

Stephens triumphed over his more conservative opponent Rep. Derek Merrin (R-Monclova), who was largely expected to take the gavel with the support of Republicans and their 67-32 majority. Stephens succeeds far-right lawmaker and former speaker Robert R. Cupp.

His 54-43 victory comes as a shock not only because of the House’s Republican majority, but also because of the strong support Merrin seemed to garner from the GOP in the time leading up to the final vote. The Republican caucus had met weeks prior and unanimously selected Merrin in the Republican primary for House Speaker. 

However, support for Merrin grew increasingly rocky in the final days before the House commenced its next session. Many Republican lawmakers expressed their doubt in Merrin’s success due to factions within the Ohio GOP. Party members were torn largely due to the short two-year tenure Merrin would lead before his term limit is reached in 2024. The idea of another leadership race on the horizon worried the caucus, only dividing existing factions further.

Had Merrin been elected, it was expected that he would make the House more right-leaning than it already is, with his endorsement of measures not yet passed, including a near-total abortion ban and an anti-union “right-to-work” bill.

By snagging the vote of every Democrat in the House as well as a handful of Republicans, Stephens gained the speaker position with a decent lead. Stephens pledges to counteract far-right policies and lead as a moderate.

“There was clearly division on the other side [the GOP], and they needed our votes,” House Minority Leader Allison Russo (D-Arlington) said. “We took the opportunity to make sure that we were going to be working with a speaker who we felt like, at the end of the day, would work with us on the issues we could agree on.” 

Democrats in the House believe that Stephens will work with them in an earnest effort to establish fair bipartisan maps when the time comes for redistricting, properly implement the new school funding formula, and support Ohio workers and infrastructure.

While some Republicans in the House find this outcome to be “absurd,” newly elected Stephens believes otherwise.

“I think it’s an issue of what brings us together. And when we have common ground as a group of Ohioans we can do a lot of good things,” he said.