National Republicans eyeing redistricting

COLUMBUS, Ohio – With an eye toward redistricting in 2022, a national Republican group is planning a seven-figure ad campaign in Ohio to help the GOP maintain its control of the Ohio Supreme Court.

The Republican State Leadership Committee has reserved $2 million worth of TV ads that will air across Ohio starting on Oct. 12. They will boost Republican Justices Pat DeWine and Pat Fischer, who are running for re-election, and Republican Justice Sharon Kennedy, who is running to replace retiring Republican Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor.

In the Nov. 8 election, DeWine and Fischer will face Democrats Marilyn Zayas and Terri Jaimison, who both are state appellate court judges. Kennedy is running against Democratic Justice Jennifer Bruner.

The ads represent the first major spending from outside groups in this year’s Supreme Court races. The court is up for grabs, with Republicans currently holding a narrow 4-3 majority, although O’Connor has been a swing vote who has voted with Democrats on redistricting and some other high-profile cases.

A statement from RSLC President Dee Duncan tied the group’s ad campaign to redistricting, the regular process of redrawing the state’s political lines to reflect changes in the state’s population. The RSLC spent $4 million during the 2018 election, and a spokesperson said it will spend at least $5 million nationally on state supreme court races this year.

The court also is expected to take up other high-profile issues, including potential abortion restrictions the Republican-dominated state legislature has signaled it plans to pass in its post-election lame-duck session.

“National liberals like Eric Holder are determined to stack courts across the country with their radical liberal allies who will draw them favorable congressional maps from the bench, and it’s time for Republicans to fight back like never before,” Duncan said.

The RLSC, which focuses on electing Republicans to state-level office, is something of an equivalent to the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which was founded by Holder, the former U.S. attorney general under ex-President Barack Obama.

The RLSC previously has announced plans to spend at least $4.3 million in state supreme court races across the country this year, the amount they spent in 2018. The NDRC, meanwhile, has been active in Ohio, helping fund Democratic candidates who play a role in redistricting and leading one of the lawsuits that challenged Ohio’s Republican-drawn congressional and state legislative maps in court this year. Holder’s group has promised to invest in the state supreme court race in Ohio, one of 17 states where it is spending this cycle.

The Ohio Chamber of Commerce also previously has announced plans to spend $4 million on state Supreme Court races, in which it’s backing Republican candidates. Chamber spokesperson Courtney Whetstone declined to share an update Thursday other than to say the chamber “generally speaking” is pleased with its progress.

Democrats also plan to put additional resources into the Ohio Supreme Court races, according to Matt Keyes, a spokesman for the Ohio Democratic Party. He declined to offer specifics. A message has been left with the NDRC seeking comment for this story.

“Ohioans have an opportunity this year to reject the extremism of Republicans on the bench and put the court back in the hands of judges like Jennifer Brunner, Terri Jamison and Marilyn Zayas who believe in the rule of law. For too long, we’ve seen the GOP-led court use the bench to play politics, and it’s time to restore integrity and justice back to the Supreme Court,” Keyes said.

This year’s redistricting process was dysfunctional and highly litigious, with the Ohio Supreme Court in a series of 4-3 votes striking down several sets of Republican-drawn state legislative and congressional maps as illegally gerrymandered in favor of the GOP. This year’s cycle was the first under new redistricting rules state voters added to the state constitution in 2015 and 2018 as anti-gerrymandering reforms.

Republicans ultimately won the redistricting fight, with both their congressional map and state legislative maps being used for this year’s primary and general elections, thanks to a series of favorable legal developments, including intervention from a federal appellate court. Maps are set to be redrawn for the 2024 elections for what could be the rest of the decade.

Republican state lawmakers have taken to effectively ignoring the Ohio Supreme Court, including letting a court-ordered deadline to redraw congressional map pass without action, signaling they plan to wait until after the November election to take up the issue again.

O’Connor, meanwhile, is leaving the court at the end of the year due to judicial age limits. She has announced post-retirement plans to join a future ballot campaign to try to replace the Republican-dominated Ohio Redistricting Commission, a panel of elected officials, with a citizen’s commission.