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Derek Merrin AP-23046778331557
Derek Merrin talks in the Ohio Statehouse on Feb. 15, 2023. Samantha Hendrickson/AP

Mike Johnson’s Favorite House Candidate Is Also One of the Most Outspoken on Abortion

Derek Merrin has pushed tight abortion restrictions in Ohio, something he has largely avoided talking about while campaigning for a swing seat in the House.

One of House Speaker Mike Johnson’s favorite congressional candidates is like him in many ways: conservative, deeply religious and fervently anti-abortion.

You won’t find Derek Merrin’s abortion stance on his campaign website, and he hasn’t talked about it in recent interviews. But the 38-year-old state legislator running against Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur has a long history in the Ohio House of Representatives leading measures like a six-week abortion ban and one that would have prosecuted people as young as 13 for seeking an abortion.

Merrin’s record stands out among GOP candidates vying for the frontline districts that will determine the House majority. National Democrats have already seized on Merrin’s record.

Ohio voters upheld the right to an abortion in the state constitution last year. Republicans insist that abortion has already been decided and isn’t a salient issue to voters.

Johnson encouraged Merrin to run for the seat late last year, and Merrin ultimately entered the GOP primary at the end of December.

“He said, ‘Listen, the House majority is on the line, we think you’re a great candidate, you have a great opportunity to beat Marcy Kaptur and we know your background and really want you to consider running; this is a really important time in our history,’” Merrin told local news of his call with Johnson.

The Merrin campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“When you have only passed five bills in 40 years like Marcy Kaptur, you seek to make up lies about your opponent because you can’t address voter concerns like border, economy, crime or the reckless policies fueled by your own ineffectiveness,” NRCC Spokesman Mike Marinella said in a statement to NOTUS. “Kaptur is desperately trying to hide from her extreme positions.”

Before Merrin joined the race, national Republicans were not thrilled with their prospects. J.R. Majewski had once again entered the race against Kaptur, a race he decisively lost in 2022 after the Associated Press reported that he lied about his military service in Afghanistan. Former Ohio state representative Craig Riedel then jumped in, but quickly lost national support after comments came to light in which he criticized former President Donald Trump as “arrogant” and said he may not endorse him.

Riedel’s comments were a nonstarter for the NRCC and Johnson in the Ohio district — one that would have voted for Trump by three points in 2020.

In Merrin, Johnson not only found a conservative who embraced Trump, but another man of faith who is guided by conservative Christian values. When Johnson formally endorsed Merrin, Merrin praised Johnson as “a strong man of faith.”

Merrin consistently spearheaded efforts to enact a statewide abortion ban during his years in the Ohio House of Representatives, before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

In 2019, he was one of 19 Republicans to co-sponsor a total ban on abortion, a bill that would create “the capital offense of aggravated abortion murder and the offense of abortion murder.” Anyone who performed or sought an abortion, including someone as young as 13, could be prosecuted and could be found “punishable by death.”

That bill didn’t make it out of committee, but the same year, the Ohio Legislature passed a six-week abortion ban. Merrin shepherded the bill as chair of the House Health Committee.

Merrin insisted he and other conservatives were not “injecting our personal faith into this bill.” But when that bill was being deliberated in his committee, Merrin challenged a reverend about a verse from Jeremiah, and on the House floor recounted testimony from two women who turned to their Christian faith after regretting their abortions.

As committee chair, Merrin did not include any amendments to include exceptions for rape or incest. Democrats proposed this as an amendment on the House floor, where it was voted down by the Republican majority.

Then-Gov. John Kasich twice vetoed the six-week abortion ban, but Gov. Mike DeWine signed the bill in April 2019.

Merrin was tapped as the next Speaker of the statehouse in January 2023, but in a last-minute shake-up lost out on the gavel when Republican Rep. Jason Stephens garnered the support of all 32 House Democrats, even though the Republicans as a group had already decided on Merrin.

In the days after his loss, Merrin didn’t concede gracefully.

“I’m the leader of the House Republicans,” Merrin said. “Jason Stephens is the Speaker of the House.”

And in his first and most significant step as self-declared leader of his party, Merrin and his fellow Republicans pushed for an overhaul of the constitutional amendment process, requiring signatures to be collected from every county in order to get a measure on the ballot, and that a measure would have to receive a 60% threshold rather than a simple majority.

“The number one interest is protecting our constitution from liberal interests that look to hijack our constitution,” Merrin said at a press conference in February 2023. To Democrats in the state, already organizing to get a constitutional amendment upholding the right to an abortion on the ballot, the message was clear.

“It was absolutely about abortion,” Planned Parenthood Advocates of Ohio Executive Director Lauren Blauvelt told NOTUS.

That initiative died in the House, and Issue 1, which created a right to an abortion, passed in November 2023 with 57% of the vote — below the threshold Merrin had pushed for.

“Although we did not defeat Issue 1, we must continue to be the voice for the voiceless,” Merrin tweeted the next day. “House Republicans will look at all available avenues to defend the unborn moving forward. We will not give up.”

Ohio’s 9th Congressional District approved Issue 1 by 12 points. Democrats are looking to capitalize on that victory and continue to hone in on Merrin’s record in the statehouse. Blauvelt said Planned Parenthood in Ohio is using the groundswell of volunteers who came out for Issue 1 in Merrin’s race.

But to Republicans, abortion is a decided issue in Ohio, one they say is low priority among swing voters and independents compared to the economy and the border.

Mark Weaver, a GOP strategist based in Ohio, told NOTUS that Merrin is in a strong position to flip the seat if he remains focused on “basic pocketbook issues.”

“Merrin is skilled at primary election issues and speaking to the Republican base on issues of abortion and rights of gun owners to defend themselves and other things that animate the conservative wing of American voters,” Weaver said. Now, Merrin “needs to run a low-key but critical campaign” against Kaptur and steer away from the divisive issues that he championed in the statehouse.

“The voters who Kaptur once counted on are largely Trump voters now. And she faces the problem that Sherrod Brown faces, which is whatever white working-class base got them to D.C. is likely to reject them this year,” Weaver said.

Katherine Swartz is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.