How This Nutty Ohio Primary Is Dividing the GOP

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty/Ohio House of Representatives/Twitter
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty/Ohio House of Representatives/Twitter

Like many dramas in today’s Republican Party, the one in Ohio’s 9th Congressional District started with someone saying something mean about Donald Trump.

“I think he is arrogant,” said Craig Riedel, a GOP candidate for the seat held by Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D), in comments that were leaked to MAGA activist Charlie Kirk in December. “I don’t like the way he calls people names. I just don’t think that’s very becoming of a president.”

Up to that point, Riedel had been considered the frontrunner in the 9th District primary over his main rival—Trump-loving J.R. Majewski, who is mounting a comeback bid after his shambolic 2022 campaign ended in a blowout Kaptur victory.

But Riedel’s comments blazed across the MAGA internet, prompting former supporters to abandon him and prompting Majewski to pick up new backers, like Ohio’s high-profile Sen. J.D. Vance.

National Republicans, already convinced Majewski is a surefire loser, worried that Riedel was dealt a fatal blow, despite his attempts to clean up the debacle by quickly endorsing Trump and spending $10,000 on Fox News ads in West Palm Beach, Florida. GOP brass recruited another candidate, state Rep. Derek Merrin, to jump into the race just before the deadline to file.

With the GOP primary looming in March, Republicans are increasingly concerned that all the maneuvering could just lead them to the same outcome they’ve been trying to avoid: a repeat performance from Majewski.

“It’s a bit of a debacle in terms of recruitment, because I think J.R. would have lost head-to-head to either [Merrin or Riedel],” said a GOP source involved in Ohio politics, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the race. “But they’ll siphon off too many votes from each other.”

This northwest Ohio district, home to the former manufacturing hub of Toledo, provides one of the best opportunities for House Republicans to grow their paper-thin majority. In 2020, Trump carried the district by 3 points.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, walks down the House steps on Sept. 30, 2022.

Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

But they face a formidable opponent in Kaptur, who has held this seat for over 40 years. Ousting her would be a tall task for any Republican; the messy, loyalty-splitting primary drama only strengthens her odds in November.

While Riedel carries his own baggage—as does Merrin from his long career in the Ohio state legislature—many Republicans believe that the race would effectively be over if Majewski were nominated again.

After all, operatives are still reeling from his first campaign. After pulling off an upset victory in the 2022 primary—in which Riedel and another establishment-aligned candidate split votes—Majewski traveled to Washington for meetings.

At that point, Majewski was best known as a MAGA superfan who had mowed Trump’s face onto his home’s massive lawn. A political newcomer, he had no experience running any campaign, much less a top-tier one, or any relationships in the GOP strategist class, so he traveled to the Beltway to quickly stand up an operation.

But according to those who recall his visit, Majewski was acting as if he’d already won the race.

One night during his trip, Majewski went to Decades, a popular four-level nightclub in Washington’s DuPont Circle neighborhood, where he secured a table with bottle service. A photo of him at the table began circulating among GOP congressmen, according to two sources familiar with the incident.

Ohio Republican candidate for Congress J.R. Majewski.

Ohio Republican candidate for Congress J.R. Majewski hands out hats to supporters at the VFW Post 2529 Annual Corn Roast in Sandusky, Ohio on Aug. 20, 2022.

Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

On the candidate’s table was a placard bearing the words: “Congressman J.R. Majewski.”

The display raised the alarm bells of Republicans who were already concerned about Majewski’s bombastic behavior. “It was just so ridiculous,” said one of the GOP sources.

It wouldn’t be the first time Majewski inflated his résumé during that campaign: In September 2022, the Associated Press revealed that he significantly distorted his military record, presenting himself as a hardened veteran of combat in Afghanistan when he actually deployed to a safe zone in Qatar. That November, Majewski ended up losing by over 13 points to Kaptur.

Majewski did not address the Decades incident when contacted by The Daily Beast, instead taking aim at House Republicans’ campaign arm, the National Republican Congressional Committee, whose leaders have been clear that Majewski would not win a rematch with Kaptur.

“If the NRCC was half as focused on beating the Democrats as they are keeping Trump aligned candidates out of Congress, the Republican party would be in much better shape,” Majewski said through a spokesperson via text message.

Not long ago, Riedel might have ensured that Republicans wouldn’t have had to worry about Majewski losing them another election in Trump territory. He entered the race last year and easily outraised both Kaptur and Majewski in his first quarter of the campaign. He also picked up a critical endorsement from Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), the key Trump ally who represents a neighboring district.

Riedel had also won the backing of the entire House GOP leadership team: then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-LA), Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-MN), and Conference Chair Elise Stefanik (R-NY).

But the fallout of Riedel’s leaked comments was swift. By early January, Stefanik—the loud Trump disciple and vice president hopeful—rescinded her Riedel endorsement, saying she was “very disappointed in his inappropriate comments regarding President Trump.”

Ohio Rep. Max Miller (R-OH), a former senior Trump adviser, also ditched Riedel. Ohio Republican Senate candidate Bernie Moreno went farther, dumping Riedel and backing Majewski. Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH), Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and Freedom Caucus Chair Bob Good (R-VA) are also all on Team Majewski.

“We’ve seen where Craig Riedel is on President Trump. He has publicly stated that he’s not for him, and that deeply cuts against him,” Ohio Republican operative Mehek Cooke told The Daily Beast.

Though there’s been pressure on GOP leaders to abandon Riedel—especially on Jordan—he, Scalise, and Emmer have not done so. But they haven’t come to his defense, either—though Riedel is still boasting them as endorsers on his campaign website.

Americans for Prosperity Action—the campaign wing of the powerful Koch brothers-backed organization—also appears to still be fundraising on Riedel’s behalf. As of Sept. 30, Riedel had over $500,000 cash on hand, but Politico reported in December that his campaign had gone negative.

Majewski has seized on Riedel’s downfall to cast himself as the Trump candidate in the race.

“The only one that supported Donald Trump since he came down the golden escalator is this guy right here,” Majewski said, pointing to himself, during a debate last week.

Majewski also claimed to be the only candidate who “maintains a relationship” with Trump. Republican strategists have reportedly begged Trump not to back Majewski this cycle as he did in 2022. It remains to be seen if the unpredictable former president will wade into the race this cycle, but strategists believe that his endorsement could be decisive if he does.

Majewski’s ride-or-die commitment to Trump has also come under scrutiny after a message in which Majewski called Trump an “idiot” surfaced last cycle. Majewski has claimed the message was somehow doctored, but that hasn’t stopped Riedel from circulating ads quoting the Majewski quote to deflect from his own Trump disloyalty.

Donald Trump introduced J.R. Majewski.

Donald Trump introduced J.R. Majewski during a rally in Vandalia, Ohio on Nov. 7, 2022.

Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Rather than stand by as their first pick’s congressional chances circled the drain, concerned Republican campaign brass tapped Merrin to join the fray.

Breaking with members of his leadership team who have stuck with Riedel, Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) endorsed Merrin last week, calling him a “proven conservative and demonstrated leader with a backbone” who would help expand the GOP’s tenuous House majority—if they can hang onto it.

Merrin comes with his own complicated relationship with Ohio Republicans—and a long history with former state House Speaker Larry Householder, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison last year after being convicted on corruption charges.

But the longtime Ohio GOP presence does have conservative credentials, too.

“He’s always been a conservative, a strong conservative, but also is a bit of a change agent, somebody that the establishment has always looked at with a side eye,” a second longtime Ohio Republican strategist told the Daily Beast.

After three terms in the state house, Merrin made a surprise run for the speaker’s gavel, clinching the GOP nomination after a Republican caucus vote in November 2022.

Much like McCarthy did in Congress, Merrin expected to waltz into the speakership with a formal House-wide vote in January 2023. He even sought to remodel the chamber with new carpeting, furniture, artwork, bookshelves, lighting, and paint. (He also asked for “larger and more regal” lawmaker office signs as well as new foil-embossed business cards.)

But neither Merrin’s redesign nor his speakership dreams came to be. When it came time for the full House vote, 22 of the 65 House Republicans blindsided Merrin, siding with Democrats to elect a more moderate speaker, Rep. Jason Stephens.

Merrin has since declared himself the rightful leader of Ohio House Republicans and sued Stephens over control of campaign finance accounts. The Ohio Republican Party censured the GOP lawmakers who broke with Merrin.

Merrin’s allies are recasting the drama as a plus for the candidate. In the rough-and-tumble world of the congressional GOP conference, enduring a speaker battle can only make a candidate more prepared for intra-party conflict.

“He’s tried and he’s tested. He also lives and fights by his values, even though it doesn’t always benefit him to do so,” Cooke told The Daily Beast.

Merrin also has some eyebrow-raising ties to former Speaker Householder, who is serving 20 years in prison after being convicted in a $60 million bribery case. Before the scandal broke, Merrin had taken upwards of $17,000 between Householder’s dark money Growth & Opportunity PAC and his official committee.

After Householder was arrested, Merrin was one of 20 Republicans who voted against expelling the former speaker from the legislature in 2021. (Since then, Merrin has sponsored an ethics reform bill to guard against future corruption schemes).

Merrin has not posted his initial fundraising numbers and donor information, given he’s only been in the race since late December. But it might not take much to outraise his opponents; as of late September, Majewski reported less than $10,000 in cash on hand.

Meanwhile, Ohio Democrats rooting for Kaptur to win her 22nd term in office are not surprised by Republicans’ “juicy” infighting, Ohio Democratic strategist Jeff Rusnak told The Daily Beast.

“They’ve put themselves in a very difficult position that they’re having a hard time figuring out how to get out of it,” Rusnak said of Republicans. “They trapped themselves.”

With Merrin and Riedel fighting for an overlapping pool of anti-Majewski Republicans, Democrats see a path where the self-proclaimed “U.S. Congressman” actually secures the nomination.

“People grossly underestimated J.R. Majewski. We all saw what happened,” Rusnak said. Republicans “got caught again. It’s not even being flat-footed, it goes beyond being flat-footed.”

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