Right-wing group spent $1.8M targeting GOP lawmakers locally and across Ohio

Local rep.: ‘The amount spent, and the playing fast and loose with the facts, was something that seems entirely new.’

Credit: Avery Kreemer

Credit: Avery Kreemer

An out-of-state political action committee spent $1.8 million on door knockers and campaign mailers in a handful of races across the state in the March GOP primary, including three races in the Miami Valley, according to an analysis of campaign finance data.

In large part, Make Liberty Win’s goal was to knock out House GOP incumbents that the conservative group did not favor. The dark money group’s motives appear to align somewhat, but not completely, with a rift in the GOP in the Ohio Statehouse.

The Ohio House Republican Alliance, a PAC controlled by Ohio House leadership, spent more than $3 million protecting Republican incumbents this year, including fending off attacks from Make Liberty Win.

Jared Borg, chief political director with the OHRA, told this news organization that he’s never seen this much outside spending in a March primary.

“It begs the question, why are out-of-state dark money groups trying to buy Statehouse seats?” Borg said.

Across the state, Make Liberty Win drew attention for its rapid-fire attack ads (misleading in some cases and legally challenged in others), but it also quietly spent money supporting favored candidates.

Around Dayton, Make Liberty Win’s favored candidates won two out of the three races the group was involved in.

It spent:

• More than $99,000 to attack Rep. Adam Mathews, R-Lebanon, a candidate that the group supported in 2022 when Mathews was first elected to the House. Make Liberty Win did not spend any money to support either of his GOP primary challengers this March, and Mathews won his race.

• More than $37,000 to attack Rep. Sara Carruthers, R-Hamilton, and more than $59,000 to support her challenger Diane Mullins. This is more than Mullins’ own campaign spent on the race. Mullins handily defeated Carruthers.

• More than $69,000 to support Levi Dean, a Xenia city councilman who ran against three other Republicans to replace his term-limited father Rep. Bill Dean, R-Xenia, in the Ohio House. Dean won his primary. Make Liberty Win did not spend money to oppose any of his opponents and spent more than all three of them combined.

In an interview, Mathews told the Dayton Daily News that he had won Make Liberty Win’s support in 2022 by filling out a standard questionnaire. He believes he lost their support in 2023 by supporting and voting for the state’s two-year operating budget.

“One of the other representatives in the state House had said, ‘Hey, we don’t want you to be voting for this budget,’” Mathews recalled.

Mathews said he voted for the budget because it included substantial tax cuts that he helped work on, it brought needed funding to keep a tourism magnet in his district, and it made a historic investment in private school vouchers.

“They said, ‘If you vote for this budget, you’re out.’ And since then, they’ve been incredibly aggressive,” Mathews said.

Matthews identified the lawmaker he spoke to as state Rep. Ron Ferguson, R-Wintersville.

Ferguson is employed as a major gifts officer raising funds for Young Americans For Liberty, a Texas-based 501(c)(4) outfit that does not have to list its donors. In 2024, YAFL donations made up $4.9 million of the total $5.4 Make Liberty Win raised.

Ferguson denies having the interaction Mathews describes and finds it unlikely that someone would be targeted over something as broad as the state budget. Despite working for the group that largely funds Make Liberty Win, Ferguson says he has no involvement with the PAC itself.

“I work for (Young Americans For Liberty). I have nothing to do with a PAC,” Ferguson said. “But sometimes people don’t really understand how that works and they get the two confused.”

Whatever the motive, Mathews faced a barrage of attacks distributed by Make Liberty Win — several of them debunked — in the lead up to March’s primary election.

The mailers labeled him a “Democrat agent” and a “do-nothing.”

Mathews has voted in line with other conservatives and introduced and passed multiple pieces of legislation. He said he was attacked over a bill for which he wasn’t even responsible that would let government employees work from home.

Mathews said he and his peers have never seen anything quite like Make Liberty Win’s efforts in a March primary.

“The amount spent, and the playing fast and loose with the facts, was something that seems entirely new,” said Mathews.

In an email, this news organization asked Make Liberty Win Executive Director Barrett Young if Ferguson or his employer had “any influence at all” on which candidates the PAC backed this March.

“Since we’re not a think tank or an organization that engages in lobbying, we’re humble enough to seek an abundance of counsel on how best to shift the political environment in a Liberty direction,” Young wrote in response. “We chatted with many activists, organizations, and elected officials as a part of our decision making process.”

As for Mathews, Young said the PAC turned on him because he’s a “turncoat.”

Young described Mathews as “the ‘conservative’ face that Leadership uses as a shield for their bad behavior,” and suggested that Mathews worked with Stephens to shut down conservative criticism of the “bloated” operating budget.

“We felt we had a moral obligation to oppose him since he went bad,” Young said. “We’re not too proud to admit when we’ve made a mistake and supporting Mathews in the past was a mistake we tried to atone for in the primary.”

Carruthers, who took legal action against Make Liberty Win for sending out mailers without the proper identification, said it’s “scary” and “dangerous” for an out-of-state group to have such influence.

At least one of Make Liberty Win’s mailers against Carruthers alleged that she stole her twin children from their surrogate mother, a claim that has not been proven true in court. Carruthers said her concern is more than just sour grapes.

“They don’t know what’s necessary in our state; they don’t know the people; they don’t know what our what our needs are,” she said.

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