NEW PHILADELPHIA — The winner of the race for the Republican nomination in the 98th Ohio House District likely won't be known until later this month at the earliest.
The top two candidates, Uhrichsville Law Director Brett Hillyer and Dover Council President Shane Gunnoe, were separated by just eight votes after Tuesday's election. Hillyer had 2,486 votes to Gunnoe's 2,478 votes, according to unofficial totals from the Ohio Secretary of State's office.
An unknown number of provisional, absentee and overseas military ballots have yet to be counted in the two counties in the 98th District, Tuscarawas and Holmes. They could change the outcome.
Tuscarawas County has 81 provisional ballots and 88 mail-in absentee ballots and six overseas ballots that had not been received yet. Some or all of the provisional ballots may not be counted if they were cast incorrectly. As for the absentee ballots, Allan Sayre, director of the Tuscarawas County Board of Elections, said people often take them out but do not return them to the board of elections.
Mary Shaffer, deputy director of the Holmes County Board of Elections, said her county has 12 provisional ballots. Those ballots have not been separated yet. Holmes County is in two House districts, so some of the provisional ballots could be from the other House district, or they could be Democratic ballots or issue-only ballots.
The number to be counted in the Hillyer-Gunnoe race will likely be less than 12, she said.
Sayre said Tuscarawas County will determine which provisional ballots will be counted when the board of elections meets to certify the results beginning at 8:30 a.m. May 21. The process cannot start until May 19 to give time for overseas ballots to arrive, and it must be completed by May 29.
If the difference in the number of votes between Hillyer and Gunnoe is less than one-half of 1 percent of the total ballots cast, then a recount would be necessary, according to state law.
If there is a recount, it would not be the first time one has decided the 98th District race.
In November 2012, current state Rep. Al Landis, R-Dover, defeated Democratic challenger Josh O'Farrell also by eight votes. A recount that December confirmed Landis' victory, but O'Farrell challenged the decision in court. Ultimately, the GOP-controlled Ohio House voted in favor of Landis in May 2013. The dispute cost the Tuscarawas County Board of Elections more than $41,000 in legal fees and labor costs.
Both Landis and O'Farrell hired outside help to assist them during the process.
Gunnoe said he is uncertain whether or not he will hire a lawyer.
"We're still in discussions about that," he said. "I've never hired a lawyer in the past, but it does not hurt to have legal advice."
"I will be hiring legal counsel to make sure the process is followed," Hillyer said.
Doug Wills, a member of the Tuscarawas County Board of Elections and chairman of the Tuscarawas County Republican Party, said he does not recall a primary election that has ended this closely or one with this many candidates.
"I don't recall this many well-qualified folks running across the state," he said. "I really believe that people coming off the Trump campaign were very energized and wanted to get involved. I see that from people never involved in politics before."
Gunnoe was the clear winner in Tuscarawas County, leading Hillyer by 166 votes, according to unofficial totals. But in Holmes County, Hillyer led the five-man race with 338 votes. New Philadelphia businessman Greg Ress, who received the endorsement of Holmes County's two Republican commissioners, came in second with 267 votes. Gunnoe came in third with 164 votes.
Observers were unsure why Republicans in the two counties had different preferences for a nominee.
Holmes County Commissioner Joe Miller, a Republican, said he thought voters "that are not as up on the issues" were influenced by a T-R story that showed that Hillyer had raised the most money during the campaign. "Everybody likes to vote for a winner. They were assuming he was definitely going to be the winner."
The race was marked by a spate of negative advertising from out-of-state political action committees supporting two rival GOP candidates for Speaker of the Ohio House. The ads targeted both Hillyer and Gunnoe.
Gunnoe noted that he did a lot of door-to-door campaigning in Holmes County. "I felt pretty good about it. Unfortunately, we're not well know out there, and the flood of negative advertising affected me more there than in Tuscarawas County, where I'm better known."
Hillyer attributed his success to his campaign message.
"I think I had a conservative message that played very well in Holmes County," he said. "I think I did well in rural areas of the 98th District."
Miller, who has been a commissioner for 15 years, deplored the tone of the campaign.
"To me it was sad that they beat each other up the way that they did," he said. "I also didn't like the way people in Columbus had their finger in the election. Politics is interesting, but it was sad that it get to this level where they beat each other up."