The race is on to replace Bill Johnson in Congress

U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson’s plan to resign his House seat in February or early March to become Youngstown State University president would open a safe Republican seat for which state Sen. Michael Rulli is seen as an early favorite.

Rulli, R-Salem, filed a declaration of candidacy and created a campaign committee with the Federal Election Commission, which allows him to start raising money for the race. Rulli said Thursday he is scheduling a date and time for an official announcement.

Dec. 20 is the deadline for candidates to file for the full two-year position on the March 19, 2024, primary ballot with the winners moving to the Nov. 5, 2024, general election for a term starting in January 2025.

Other notable Republican names considering runs are state Rep. Ron Ferguson of Wintersville, and Christina Hagan of Marlboro, a former state House member who lost congressional races in 2018 and 2020. There should be more.

The 6th Congressional District includes all of Mahoning, Columbiana, Carroll, Jefferson, Belmont, Harrison, Monroe, Noble and Washington counties and portions of Stark and Tuscarawas counties.

Mahoning is the most-populous county, and a significant amount of the 6th District’s population is there, as well as in Stark and Columbiana counties.

Because of that, the strongest candidate likely will come from one of those three counties.

Hagan won four terms representing a portion of Stark County.

In his two state Senate campaigns, Rulli won Columbiana County by huge margins, and in his 2022 re-election he won big in Mahoning County.

Mahoning County Republican Party Chairman Tom McCabe and Columbiana County Republican Party Chairman Dave Johnson are backing Rulli, saying he’s easily the best candidate for the job.

The 6th District had an 18% advantage for Republicans based on voting trends in partisan statewide elections.

Because of that, Mahoning County Democratic Party Chairman Chris Anderson said the seat is not a “priority. The seat is not winnable” for a Democrat.

“We won’t recruit a candidate and use the party’s limited time and resources to run in a seat that’s been gerrymandered to the point that Bill Johnson could hold it until he found a better job,” he said.

The timing of Johnson’s planned resignation is causing issues with how and when to fill his unexpired term.

Because Republicans hold a slim nine-vote majority in the House, and George Santos, a New York Republican, is likely to be expelled, the party needs to keep every other member in office, particularly during the first part of the year.

House members will be on recess for much of the rest of the year to campaign for reelection, so having Johnson’s seat vacant during that time won’t be as damaging for the party. Also, Rep. Brian Higgins, a New York Democrat, will resign in February.

It is up to Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, to schedule an election for the rest of Johnson’s current term. DeWine won’t act until Johnson resigns.

Also, the law requires special Democratic and Republican primaries though those could be canceled if only one candidate each files — which is highly unlikely particularly on the Republican side.

In the past, DeWine has held those special congressional elections in typical voting months such as March (during presidential years), May, August and November, said Dan Tierney, his spokesman.

But DeWine could hold those elections at any time, Tierney said.

There is the possibility of a special primary in May and a general election in August or an August primary and a November general election, though nothing has been determined.

Under the latter scenario, there would be two general elections for the seat in November: one for the full two-year term and one to fill Johnson’s unexpired term for about six weeks, depending on the certification of the results.

It is assumed that the winner of the Republican primary in March 2024 would win the special election — though it’s not a given. That person would have seniority over other incoming House members elected in November 2024.

Each special election would cost more than $1 million with the state paying the cost. But it’s a potential nightmare for the boards of elections in the district as they’d be holding three, maybe four, elections in a presidential year.

“That puts an undue strain on poll workers and boards of elections to have that many elections,” David Betras, chairman of the Mahoning County Board of Elections, said. “It’s ludicrous. You’re burning people out.”


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