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GOP state House speakers face tide of challenges from the right

GOP state House speakers face tide of challenges from the right
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Republican state House speakers in at least three states are facing open rebellion on their right flanks. The latest test is coming in Ohio’s primaries Tuesday.

In recent weeks, Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan got dragged into a primary runoff for his seat by a challenger endorsed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and former President Donald Trump, after Phelan shepherded Paxton’s impeachment last year. In Wisconsin, a recall effort against state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos could fail due to a lack of valid signatures, but his standing on the right is perilous after narrowly surviving a primary challenge in 2022.

Now, in Ohio, Republican primary challengers are trying to unseat a dozen of the GOP state representatives who helped Democrats elevate a different speaker in 2023 over the choice of the Republican caucus.

Given the fracture among the Republican state representatives, neither of the Republican speaker candidates would have been able to win the speakership without Democratic votes. But defeating some of the members who elected state House Speaker Jason Stephens in 2023 may prevent him from getting another term in the role.

The state-level turmoil shows how divides in the GOP over both ideology and style are permeating the party at all levels, from the presidential primary to former U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s ouster last year on down. And it demonstrates how these national-style fights are threatening state-level powerbrokers, the type of people whose local influence used to shield them from challenge.

 Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan at the Texas Capitol in Austin, Texas, on May 26, 2023.  (Eric Gay / AP)
Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan at the Texas Capitol in Austin, Texas, on May 26, 2023. (Eric Gay / AP)

Ohio state Rep. Ron Ferguson, who is leading a Republican faction against his GOP colleagues who voted for Stephens, told NBC News the primary challenges are about throwing out “people that put power over policy.”

Stephens rejected Ferguson’s analysis of the situation. He became speaker last year after 22 GOP state representatives voted with Democrats to elect him instead of supporting state Rep. Derek Merrin, who had won the GOP’s internal caucus vote for speaker.

“I’m extremely conservative from an ideological standpoint, but from a getting business done and operating and respecting other people, I think that’s the strength that I tried to bring to the table. And that seemed to win the day. And we’ve got to continue to do that throughout the legislative General Assembly,” Stephens said. “Some people have been able to see that others have tried to poison the well since last January and continue to do so as we roll into the primary.”

State Rep. D.J. Swearingen, who backed Stephens and is now facing a primary challenge, told NBC News that the main issue was that “Derek was caught telling people that he was willing to punish those who didn’t vote for him in the caucus vote. There was going to be political retribution. And we all found out about this. So we were like, we don’t want to vote for this guy.”

Merrin told NBC News in response that “this is 100% false.” According to Merrin, he offered to make Swearingen the chair of the state House Finance Committee “even after he voted against me in caucus to help unify both sides.”

Now, Swearingen said that amid his primary campaign, “there’s this narrative now out there, that all of us that voted for Jason are somehow a bunch of liberals, which is totally ridiculous because if you look into our group, you have a group of conservatives who are pro-life, pro-gun, and most if not all of us have endorsed Donald Trump for president.” Nevertheless, the incumbent said, his primary opponent has compared him to a Nazi collaborator.

The rhetoric has been similarly heated in Texas, where Paxton-backed Republicans are waging a revenge campaign against Phelan and other GOP incumbents who backed Paxton’s impeachment on corruption charges. Paxton was acquitted, and he and Trump have accused Phelan of pushing “fraudulent” charges and not being sufficiently conservative.

That’s the complaint from the right against Vos in Wisconsin, too, where the long-tenured speaker has passed a raft of conservative legislation during his years in power. But he also refused right-wing pleas to overturn the 2020 election results and eventually shut down a probe he launched that found no evidence of widespread voter fraud.

Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos talks to the media at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis. on Feb. 15, 2022.  (Andy Manis / AP)Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos talks to the media at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis. on Feb. 15, 2022.  (Andy Manis / AP)

Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos talks to the media at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis. on Feb. 15, 2022. (Andy Manis / AP)

Vos survived his next Republican primary by only a few hundred votes, and organizers attempted to recall him this month. They are awaiting a court ruling clarifying the district lines, which could affect whether they gathered the required number of signatures to recall Vos.

Back in Ohio, Ty Mathews, a National Guard member challenging a GOP incumbent who backed the speaker there, said one of the reasons he was motivated to run was because his opponent and others had “betrayed the party” by supporting Stephens.

“We call them the ‘Blue 22’ here in Ohio,” Mathews said, adding: “I thought that it was despicable, and not just the backdoor deals that were made, but [he] kind of had a pattern of this.”

The Stephens-backing incumbent, state Rep. Jon Cross, told NBC News the infighting is “not even on [his] mind” and that people in his district “don’t have time to deal with or hear about” it.

“I think that’s a message that my opponent just wants to drive. He just wants to cause more chaos and make it sound like there’s a lot of infighting. There’s not,” Cross said. “There’s probably one or two people in our caucus who are just grumpy that they didn’t get selected in leadership, they’re throwing temper tantrums, and so we’ve moved well past all them.”

Cross hopes after the primary is over that instead of “turning the cannons on each other, we turn the cannons to the Democrats, and start focusing on — how do we get rid of [Sen.] Sherrod Brown? How do we get rid of [Rep.] Marcy Kaptur? How would they get rid of Joe Biden? And how do we unify as a party and start to focus on the real enemy, which is the Democrat policies, and the people that are in office that we disagree with.”

Republican Lt. Gov. Jon Husted, one of Stephens’ predecessors in the speakership, chalked the fight up to the pressures that have built inside the party as it gained power in the state.

“This is the kind of thing that happens once you become a clear majority party, is that sometimes you have internal factions that develop,” Husted said. “And I think that Tuesday, once that’s done, the wounds will heal quickly and Republicans will be ready to go for November.”

“There is a consequence when you don’t work together as a team,” Husted warned, “and I think that there are people who are paying the consequences.”

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