COLUMBUS - As Democrats try to dig their way out of a 14-year hole in the Ohio House on Nov. 4, they're hoping that they haven't already dug the hole a little deeper.
The party is banking on a strong anti-Republican mood on Election Day translating into a net gain of at least four House seats, building on a gain of eight during the 2006 Democratic onslaught.
But first it will have to defend a pair of seats on the fence, the Norwalk-centered 58th District where scandal led to a revolving door of candidates and the 16th District in Cleveland's western suburbs that just barely tipped Democrats' way two years ago.
The stakes are huge. Republicans currently outnumber Democrats 53-46 in the chamber.
Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland's has had a strong working relationship with the Republican-controlled General Assembly during his first two years, but a Democratic victory would hand him control of one chamber as he pushes such initiatives as his promised overhaul of school funding.
"We will still have a solidly Republican Senate," said Herb Asher, Ohio State University political science professor emeritus. "It would give the governor a little more clout if the House is of the same party, but it's going to be split control one way or the other. Unless every close district breaks the same way, which is unlikely, the chamber will be even more narrowly divided than it is today."
The GOP has a robust 21-12 majority in the Ohio Senate that could take Democrats years to reverse. "In presidential years, there could be four to five surprises," said Scott Borgemenke, a consultant for the House GOP races.
"House races are won on split-ticket voters, not by straight-ticket voters," he said. "That's why a message can't be uniform. Just because McCain does well in Butler County or Barack Obama does well in the inner city of Cleveland doesn't have anything to do with what happens in the suburbs."
Scarlett Bouder, communications director for the House Democratic campaign, said the party has 21 districts in its sights, including several Democrat-held seats that might be vulnerable to upset.
"There's no silver bullet," she said. "It's a combination of many factors, including polling, the governor's past performance, as well as the [Democratic performance index]," she said.
The party, thanks to better-than-usual fund-raising, has taken the unprecedented step of assigning a campaign manager to each of 21 targeted races.
While most of northwest Ohio will largely watch the battles from the sidelines, two area seats are among the 21 targets - the GOP-held 46th District encompassing Lucas County's western suburbs and, to a lesser extent, the Democrat-held 80th District snaking along Lake Erie to the east.
Rep. Barbara Sears (R., Sylvania) has held the 46th District seat for nearly a year, having been appointed to replace Mark Wagoner (R., Ottawa Hills) after his appointment to the Senate. Democrats are running Sylvania attorney Darlene Dunn against her, hoping the district's independent streak may work to their advantage this time.
That independent streak was evident in 2006 when the 46th strongly supported Mr. Strickland while simultaneously sending then-Representative Wagoner back to Columbus for another two years.
"We've got to be watchful," said Mr. Borgemenke. "It should be an easier road to hoe for us [in the 46th] than them, but they could sneak up on us there. We've got a good candidate. They've got a decent candidate I think Barbara's going to win, but you don't put anything in the lock category."
It would be a coup for Republicans to capture the 80th, now held by Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern of Catawba Island Township. But while Republicans are competitive here, it went overwhelmingly for Mr. Strickland two years ago.
The district encompasses all of Erie County and most of Ottawa. With Mr. Redfern term-limited, Democrats hope Sandusky attorney Dennis Murray will keep the seat in party hands while Republicans again put up Ed Enderle, a Huron Township trustee in Erie County.
The most troublesome spot for Democrats in northern Ohio is the 58th District, a Republican-leaning but Democrat-held district straddling eastern Seneca and covering Huron and southwestern Lorain counties. Amherst attorney Matt Barrett was a rising Democratic star two years ago when his second attempt at this seat rode the Strickland wave to a narrow win.
But then Mr. Barrett accidentally flashed pictures of nude women before a Norwalk High School class instead of the planned computer presentation on government. At first it was considered an embarrassment with the suggestion that Mr. Barrett's son had been involved. But he was eventually asked to resign by House Democratic leaders when he admitted that he knew the women in the photos and that he'd misled them about how the photos got onto his computer flash drive.
Rep. Thomas Heydinger (D., Norwalk) was appointed to replace Mr. Barrett in the chamber, but the newcomer soon opted not to follow through with the election.
Eventually, Amherst Councilman Terry Traster stepped into the breach to do battle with Terry Boose, Norwalk Township's fiscal officer and a former Huron County commissioner.
"We feel good about the district," said the Democrats' Ms. Bouder. "We would have liked it if Terry Traster had gotten in there a little earlier, but he's lived there his whole life. He's been city councilman and has done a lot of community work."
Meanwhile, Democrats will have to defend the 16th District encompassing the Cuyahoga County suburbs west of Cleveland. The traditionally Republican-performing district was a pleasant surprise for Democrats when Rep. Jennifer Brady (D., Westlake) squeaked out a victory.
Republicans are aggressively trying to regain this seat this year.
A handful of other districts to watch include:
•18th District (Cuyahoga County's southwestern suburbs): Rep. Tom Patton (R., Strongsville) has held this swing district but is now running for Ohio Senate. The term-limited current senator, Robert Spada, had been expected to run but instead accepted a job offered by the Strickland administration. Democratic community activist Matt Patten will face Republican accountant Colleen Grady.
•20th District (Columbus' northeastern suburbs): Rep. Jim McGregor (R., Gahanna) is again considered vulnerable, but he survived the Strickland tide of 2006. This time Democrats are offering Nancy Garland, former executive director of the Ohio Physical Therapy Association.
•22nd District (Columbus' northwestern suburbs): With Rep. Jim Hughes (R., Columbus) running for the Senate, Democrats figure there's an opening for health care attorney John Carney. This Republican-leaning district supported Mr. Strickland in 2006. Republicans are offering Dublin insurance agent Michael H. Keenan.
•28th District (northeastern Hamilton County): The acceptance of Rep. Jim Raussen (R., Cincinnati) of a job in the Strickland administration has left this hotly contested seat wide open. Mr. Strickland barely won this Republican-leaning district in 2006. Republicans are offering Sharonville Mayor Virgil Lovitt to the Democrats' Connie Pillich, an attorney.
•42nd District (Akron's northeastern suburbs): Rep. John Widowfield (R., Cuyahoga Falls) resigned earlier this year amid ethics allegations that he sold free Ohio State University football tickets on eBay for a personal profit. His replacement, Rep. Richard Nero (R., Hudson), will defend the seat against Democratic Hudson City Councilman Mike Moran.
•91st District (Hocking, Perry, southern Licking, eastern Pickaway): Democrats are in defensive mode in this Republican-leaning rural district that went strongly for Mr. Strickland in 2006. Rep. Dan Dodd (D., Hebron) faces Republican attorney William C. Hayes, of Granville.
•92nd District (Morgan, Athens, Meigs, western Washington): Long held by Rep. Jimmy Stewart (R., Athens), who is running for the Senate, this geographically huge Appalachian district is a top Democratic target. The youth vote out of Ohio University could help to decide this one. Republicans are offering Athens County Auditor Jill Thompson to the Democrats' Debbie Phillips, executive director of the Ohio Fair Schools Campaign.
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