COLUMBUS, Ohio — There's an election happening in Ohio, but you could be forgiven for losing track.
Secretary of State Frank LaRose is shelling out a quarter million dollars to remind voters that on Aug. 2, Ohio holds its primaries for state House and state Senate. The delay in voting stems from redistricting, a bitter fiasco that somehow feels a lot longer ago given the political upheavals since.
The end result is a map the state supreme court deemed unconstitutional, but a federal court imposed, for this election, at least, anyway. Partisan analysis suggests Republicans would have roughly 54-45 seat advantage in the House and an 18-15 seat advantage in the Senate. But digging a little deeper, Democrats have a far more tenuous hold on those seats where they would seem to have an advantage.
It means a larger share of state legislative races could be in play come November, even as Republicans seem sure to maintain their control of both chambers. In the ferment, incumbents are squaring off against each other and politically lopsided districts see a throng of newcomers jockeying on one side of the aisle or the other. There's a lot to look out for in a batch of state legislative races that largely fly under the radar.
The late additions
The first group worth mentioning is the handful of Democrats who were placed on the ballot only after intervention from the state supreme court. William DeMora and Anita Somani will appear on the ballot for their legislative primaries. Elizabeth Thien and Leronda Jackson got the go ahead to run as a write-in candidates, and two others will be able to run for the party’s central committee.
The six Democrats argued in court that they complied with state law by filing in time for an August primary. Secretary of State Frank LaRose contended that when they filed, a primary date hadn’t been determined, and so their declarations should be ignored.
Coincidentally, the federal court order setting a legislative primary on Aug. 2 came down on May 28 — three weeks after the deadline to appear on the ballot and about a week after the cut off for write in candidates.
Two Republicans, Shay Hawkins and Mehek Cooke, intervened in the case arguing a new filing window should be opened, or alternatively, the election itself should be pushed into September.
In the case of the six Democrats, the court’s majority called the complaint "a simple question of statutory construction." State statutes set the timeline, and they complied with it, so the boards of elections should review their petitions and certify them for the ballot if everything is in order. The court denied Hawkins and Cooke's requests, however, because their filings didn’t comply with the statutory timeline.
DeMora and Thien are both running for the Democratic nomination in Senate District 25. Somani is running for the party's nomination in House District 11, and Jackson is running in House District 39.
While the current map means there are more competitive districts than previous years, they aren't all drawn that way. At the far ends of the spectrum, the primaries will play a more important role in determining who eventually takes office, and the competition in a number of those races could be cutthroat.
House District 3 wraps together trendy Columbus shopping areas like Easton and the Short North with diverse, suburban neighborhoods in between. It's among the most Democratic leaning districts in the state and five political newcomers are vying for the party's nomination.
House District 22 leans even further to the left, but because it's a reorientation of her former district, Rep. Juanita Brent, D-Cleveland, has picked up two primary challengers. Just to the north, District 21 will see three new faces as well, and District 59 just south of Youngstown has four Democrats on the ballot with no Republicans qualified.
Across the aisle, Republicans have crowded contests of their own in the most GOP-friendly districts. House Districts 84 and 85 are the most conservative on the map — both have three Republican candidates, and voters might recognize some of the names.
In District 84, along the western edge of the state, Angela King has spent the past twenty years in local office as Celina city councilwoman and then Mercer County recorder. She's running against Jacob Larger and Aimee Morrow for the GOP nomination.
One step to the east in District 85, Lilli Johnson Vitale, wife of outgoing Rep. Nino Vitale, R-Urbana, is running against Tim Barhorst and Rochiel Foulk. Barhorst was one of the candidates disgraced former House Speaker Larry Householder recruited to run in 2018, and then bankrolled with dark money from FirstEnergy. After winning his primary, though, Barhorst lost in the general election.
GOP voters will also see familiar faces in House District 67 which includes Ashland county and runs northeast along the stairstep of Medina County. The race pits Brunswick mayor Ron Falconi against Melanie Miller, a former Miss Ohio, and the wife of Ashland’s mayor, Matt Miller, as well as a local realtor Terry Robertson.
These races are attracting so many candidates at least in part because the seat is often "open" without an obvious incumbent running for reelection. The opposite is now true in House District 16.
Reps. Bride Rose Sweeney, D-Cleveland, and Monique Smith, D-Fairview Park, moved to the 16th district after Republican mapmakers drew them both into noticeably less favorable districts.
The majority of the new House District 16 is territory that Smith had represented. But under the new map, her previous home would've been in neighboring District 17 where she'd be facing Strongsville stalwart Rep. Tom Patton in the general election.
Cleveland.com reports Smith's move was a last-minute decision, after many in the party had encouraged her to stay put in District 17. The fight boiled over on Twitter last month with Smith accusing minority leader Allison Russo of "gaslighting" her and expressing frustration that party leaders would put her to one side after she successfully flipped a seat in the previous election.
Sweeney and Smith's race is the only one pitting two incumbents against one another, but it’s not the only one where an incumbent faces a realistic challenge from within their party's ranks.
If you're a Republican, Rep. Thomas Hall, R-Madison Township, just turned in a pretty impressive first term. He successfully lobbied to appropriate half a million dollars for land revitalization in his home county, sent almost half a billion dollars in COVID relief funding to townships around the state and passed a measure that allows schools to arm teachers.
Despite all that, Hall will face a challenge from fellow Republican Matt King in August. King is a marketing director for Hightowers Petroleum in Middletown and has a background in conservative media working for Glenn Beck's The Blaze. He's stacked up significant endorsements including Cincinnati Right to Life, Americans for Prosperity, and Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones. What's more, thanks to a personal loan of $60,000, King had about five times as much cash on hand as Hall did at the last campaign finance filing in January.
Interestingly, King's endorsements might have something to do with his bid. In an interview with Gongwer, Hall said he believed the challenge stemmed from his refusal to back Sheriff Jones' attempt to take over a local emergency management.
What's happening in the Senate?
Because of their two year terms, all 99 state House seats are up for reelection, but in the Senate, only the odd-numbered districts will be on the ballot in 2022. Again, coincidentally, of the eight competitive seats in the bunch, only three happen to be odd numbered districts.
In Franklin County's District 3 and Summit County's District 27, neither party has a contested primary.
But in District 13, just west of Cleveland, Sen. Nathan Manning, R-North Ridgeville, will face a challenge from the right. Kirsten Hill is a member of the state board of education from Amherst. She was in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6 and even coordinated a bus trip for the event with other Lorain TEA Party members.
In an emailed statement shortly afterward she insisted her day "consisted of listening to President Trump's speech, walking to the Capitol, praying at a street corner along the National Mall and waving my American flag in support of our great country."
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