As the aftershocks of the fierce speakership battle roil the chamber, Republicans’ anger turns inward, the opposing camps fighting each other. Unified Democrats, stuck in the minority, stand back and watch the spectacle.
This is not the story of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R-CA) woes. It’s the implosion radiating from the Ohio House of Representatives where a dark-horse candidate, Rep. Jason Stephens (R), triumphed over Rep. Derek Merrin (R) — with the help of the Democrats.
Merrin had informally won the backing of the Republican conference just a couple months before. But Stephens assembled a coalition of House Democrats and moderate Republicans, winning the gavel in an upset that continues to reverberate. Such an outcome — Democrats joining some Republicans to nab the speakership — had been floated at the national level should McCarthy repeatedly fail to garner enough votes, but the scenario never came to pass.
Now, Merrin’s group of Ohio Republicans is running some of the same plays that have become hallmarks of the national Republican party since the Donald Trump era began: the refusal to accept a loss, insistence that a loss means that an election was rigged or stolen or won unfairly, a knee-jerk reflex to eject party members at the first break with that orthodoxy.
Merrin has decidedly not conceded gracefully. Amassing the Republicans who did not vote for Stephens and calling them the “Republican Majority Caucus,” he anointed himself the true leader of his party.
“You can say whatever you want to say,” House Minority Whip Jessica Miranda (D) told TPM. “You don’t have the gavel.”
Miranda and her Democrats, locked by cumulative years of gerrymandering into a superminority, find themselves holding some actual power. Fresh off of getting the candidate they consider the lesser of two evils elected speaker, they functionally stand as one of three parties, none of which has the votes it needs to pass legislation alone.
And cooperation between the Republican factions seems, at the moment, hard to come by.
The Ohio GOP censured the Republicans who voted for Stephens, and Merrin excluded them from the meeting where he crowned himself king of the disgruntled Republicans.
“What you’re telling me is I’m a Republican that voted for a Republican speaker and the state Republican party is censuring me?” Rep. Jon Cross (R), one of the censured defectors, told the Columbus Dispatch. “Sounds like the dipshits are running the insane asylum.”
Merrin is now demanding outsized committee power for his far-right “caucus,” and that one of the biggest priorities for its members get a vote before the end of the month. The bill in question would raise the threshold for passage of ballot initiatives to 60 percent from a simple majority, and its primary sponsor admitted it was intended to thwart two major Democratic priorities: abortion protections and redistricting reforms. The newest version of the bill would also require that signatures be collected from every Ohio county to get a question on the ballot and eliminate the cure period.
There has been rampant speculation about whether Democrats secured Stephens’ promise that he wouldn’t bring the measure to the floor in exchange for their support.
Miranda, the Democratic whip, echoed the party line that there had been no “grand deal,” just “broad” conversations, but took a dim view of the bill’s prospects.
“I don’t think they have the votes in their own caucus to support something like an HJR 6, let alone shopping for our votes,” she said of the legislation. “I don’t think they even have the support it takes to get it to the floor without us.”
The current standoff is shot through with elements that have become foundational to the Trumpified Republican party.
Merrin, the loser, not only refuses to accept his defeat: along with making up a title for himself, he and his allies are now attacking the speakership itself, the job he was gunning for just weeks ago.
He’s been calling it a “dictatorship,” arguing that the chamber must decentralize the power that, to his chagrin, isn’t in his hands. If he can’t be speaker, nobody can.
Miranda said she’s watched Republicans adopt this kind of thinking across the country.
“Good old Kari Lake is still denying that she lost the gubernatorial race in Arizona,” she said. “This is right out of their playbook.”
“They want people to believe that our elections aren’t free and fair so that when they lose, they can just claim wrongdoing or foul play,” she added. “It’s such a weak argument — it shows how weak they are.”
Republicans like Merrin and Lake often buffer their inability to accept a loss with accusations that the only way they possibly, conceivably could not have won is by chicanery. For Lake, it’s malfunctioning ballot printers and conniving election officials. For Merrin, it’s a devious Stephens whipping votes while he was distracted by the death of his father.
For Miranda, it was Merrin’s record.
“It would be hard for any one of us to justify supporting the person who passed the heartbeat bill here in the state of Ohio,” she said of Merrin, then-chair of the committee that passed it to the full House.
It’s a microcosm of national trends, a case study in what the Republican Party has unapologetically become post-Trump. The party can’t lose; if it does, the election was stolen. And anyone who bucks that narrative has no home under the tent.
“With this rise in extremism, particularly in statehouses across the nation, this was bound to happen,” Miranda said. “They don’t have strength to control it themselves — so we had to help.”