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High-stakes GOP congressional primary in Ohio takes voters, Republicans on a roller coaster ride

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CBS News Pittsburgh Live

The roller coasters at nearby Cedar Point have nothing on the area's Republican congressional primary.

When Republican J.R. Majewski announced his "(almost) resignation" from the high-stakes northwest Ohio contest this week, it was just the latest turn in the endlessly chaotic GOP effort to oust the longest serving woman in Congress.

Since last year, GOP candidates for Ohio's 9th Congressional District have left and entered the field on a dime, gaffes have upended candidates, endorsements have hopped from campaign to campaign, and several big-name Republicans — U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson, pro-Trump superstar Rep. Jim Jordan, and U.S. Sen. JD Vance — are backing three competing campaigns.

Incumbent U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, 77, who's served in Congress since 1983, is viewed as one of the year's most vulnerable Democrats — as control of the U.S. House hangs in the balance.

Majewski, 44, a Trump-aligned "America First" candidate who was at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, had been his party's surprise nominee to take on Kaptur during 2022's midterm elections — after her slightly Democratic district was redrawn to favor Republicans. Facing the uphill battle of a political newcomer and questions about his military record, Majewski lost badly that November — trailing Kaptur by 13 points.

With some Republican leaders fearing a Kaptur-Majewski rematch, some party figures — notably including Jim Jordan — put their weight behind a different candidate for 2024: former three-term state Rep. Craig Riedel. While Jordan's caucus gained control of the House in 2022, they hold a slim 219-213 vote margin with three vacancies.

As Majewski noodled last year over whether to run again, the 57-year-old Riedel, who also sought the seat in 2022, took the tortoise's approach to the March 19 primary: He entered the race early, slowly and steadily built support and posted better early fundraising totals than either Majewski or Kaptur.

That was, until Riedel's campaign faltered.

In December, audio surfaced of Riedel speaking ill of former President Donald Trump — a potentially fatal blow in a state that twice elected Trump by wide margins and where his backing still holds sway. Riedel was heard calling Trump "arrogant" and vowing not to endorse him.

Republicans — including Rep. Elise Stefanik and Trump's pick for U.S. Senate, Bernie Moreno — began rescinding their endorsements of Riedel. Vance, who rode a Trump endorsement into the U.S. Senate last cycle, endorsed Majewski just after Riedel's remarks went public.

Still, the Republican establishment remained fiercely divided and a mad scramble ensued to find a more mainstream alternative to Majewski, with GOP state Rep. Derek Merrin joining the race on the candidate filing deadline.

Merrin, 37, is a term-limited fourth-term state representative who led an intraparty rebellion in the Ohio House last year after losing a bitter battle for speaker. Observers worried that Merrin and Riedel could again split the GOP establishment vote — as Riedel and state Sen. Theresa Gavarone had done in 2022 — sending the topsy-turvy race careening toward a 2022 rerun.

But Merrin's got the national backing of Speaker Johnson, and the Congressional Leadership Fund has committed some $497,000 in advertising so far to support his campaign, according to media tracking firm AdImpact.

Kaptur had $1.3 million on hand at the last filing deadline, compared to $542,000 for Riedel and $123,000 for Majewski, according to Federal Election Commission reports. Merrin hasn't had to file a report yet.

Riedel's campaign spokesman said he is well-known in the district, established himself through weeks of early TV advertising, and continues to knock on doors and raise money. Merrin said he has a strong proven conservative record at the Statehouse and stands the best chance of beating Kaptur.

Both men are arguably more conservative than Majewski on a key 2024 campaign issue: abortion. In 2019, both Merrin and Riedel were co-sponsors of legislation that would have declared performing or having an abortion a felony, punishable by 15 years to life in prison. During a candidate forum, Majewski said that while's he's "pro-life, 100%, without exception," he is "also a realist" aware that Ohio voters overwhelmingly supported abortion rights last fall.

Majewski appeared to be in the process of consolidating a lot of conservative star power in his corner — including Rep. Matt Gaetz, Gen. Michael Flynn and former 2024 presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy — when the race took yet another sharp turn.

In profanity-laced remarks on a podcast, Majewski disparaged Democrats and, in the process, Special Olympics athletes. He tried to get the podcast pulled from the internet — he said during an apology on X, formerly called Twitter, because he wanted to spare the feelings of those he insulted — but the damage had been done.

Republican State Rep. Gary Click, a Riedel backer, was among those who called for Majewski to leave the race. The Lucas County GOP in Toledo censured Majewski and urged him to step aside.

It was after he'd confirmed to Politico that he was considering leaving the race that Majewski issued the statement on his "(almost) resignation" — blaming "the swamp and their unquestioning allies in the media" for trying to silence "free and independent America First voices."

He vowed to stay in, saying he and his family had "decided that there is no mission more important than continuing this race and standing strong for the patriots I committed to fight for."

Amid the contest's frequent ups and downs, Steve Lankenau, 61, a former small town mayor and businessperson with a master's from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, is running as a fourth candidate in the race.

Lankenau lacks name recognition, money and big-name backing, but he believes he can win both Republican and independent votes — and put Kaptur on defense this fall.

"The other candidates bring drama and chaos," he said. "I can only speak for myself. I simply offer honestly, integrity and respect for all people."

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