COLUMBUS -- It was mid-June and lawmakers were eager to wrap up business to head home for the summer. For one brief moment, the primary reason for the early recess broke through the legislative debate on the floor of the Ohio House of Representatives.
"You all know that I have the toughest campaign of anybody here," said Rep. Connie Pillich, a suburban Cincinnati Democrat, as she urged her colleagues to stay in town to continue work on an education-reform bill.
Ms. Pillich said what everybody else in the room knew was true, although it rarely makes it into the official House record. Ms. Pillich has a giant target on her back. She was barely re-elected in 2010. The 28th District has been redrawn to make it more Republican-friendly, and she faces a rematch with Mike Wilson, a Tea Party Republican.
It took a big Democratic wave in 2008 to break the Republicans' 14-year grip on the Ohio House and a GOP tsunami to hand it back just two years later.
But with most polls suggesting a close presidential race this year, few expect much more than a ripple from the top of the ticket to help candidates on either side of the aisle.
Except for whatever boost or disadvantage is handed them by a new Republican-drawn map, candidates are probably going to have to earn it this time.
Democrats hope to begin clawing their way back to political relevancy with incremental gains. No one predicts they can pick up the 10 Republican-held seats needed to regain the speaker's lectern in a single election.
"That would be a very heavy lift," said Rep. Debbie Phillips (D., Athens), the House Democratic campaign chairman. "We have great candidates who are working really hard. There are a lot of open seats, so that's going to be a challenge. We will pick up seats. How many depends on a lot of factors, such as how the Obama ticket performs."
Republicans, meanwhile, hope to hold on to a handful of House seats where their candidates eked out victories in 2010 when voters swept Democrats out of every statewide executive office.
And even though they hold strong 59-40 and 23-10 majorities in the House and Senate, they're hoping to pad those cushions.
In addition to looking at past voting trends, Democrats are looking at how the districts voted last year on Senate Bill 5, the GOP-passed law restricting the bargaining power of public employee unions that voters rescinded.
In some districts, Democrats have enlisted current and retired teachers, a former prison employee, and union organizers to do battle with Republican lawmakers who voted for the law.
Mike Dittoe, spokesman for the House Republican Caucus on leave to the campaign effort, said nothing like Senate Bill 5 has been introduced since the law's rejection by voters.
"Voters understand that this was an effort by Republicans to try to fix the problems that Ohio is facing because every single one of the people in the General Assembly came into office with an $8 billion budget deficit, among other problems," he said.
"Voters said that was not the way they wanted to go about fixing it, and we've respected that. If Democrats are going to run only on Senate Bill 5, they should rethink their strategy, because a lot of these members and candidates are talking about other issues that voters care about. The number-one issue is jobs."
Among the seats in northwest Ohio on Democrats' radar screen is that of Wood County's 3rd District, left open by the decision of veteran Rep. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green) to seek a return to the state Senate. Although this seat has been in Republican hands for decades, it is a competitive district on paper. Democratic former Gov. Ted Strickland carried this district in 2010 despite losing statewide to Republican challenger John Kasich.
Kelly Wicks, Democratic owner of Grounds for Thought Coffee Shop and Bookstore in Bowling Green, will square off against Republican Wood County Commissioner Tim Brown. There's also the wild card of a Libertarian candidate, Bowling Green financial analyst Nathan Eberly.
A seemingly perennial target, which Ms. Phillips conceded is tougher for Democrats, is again Rep. Barbara Sears (R., Monclova Township) in the 47th District, which encompasses Lucas County's western suburbs and most of Fulton County. Democrats again have their fingers crossed that if the stars align just right, they could wrest this seat away from the number-four Republican in the House, despite the district having become even more Republican- friendly with the addition of Fulton County territory.
Other Democratic targets statewide include the:
5th District (Columbiana County): This highly competitive district pits freshman Republican Rep. Craig Newbold against Democrat Nick Barborak, an assistant county prosecutor.
7th District (southwestern Cuyahoga County): Democrats are banking that the vote of freshman Rep. Mike Dovilla (R., Berea) for Senate Bill 5 will come back to haunt him. It's no coincidence they are putting up a union field coordinator, Matt Patten of Strongsville, in a district where 56 percent of voters rejected the collective bargaining restrictions.
20th District (southeastern Franklin County): This Democratic-leaning district is up for grabs. Republicans are offering Reynoldsburg City Councilman Nathan Burd, and Democrats have Gahanna-Jefferson school board member Heather Bishoff.
24th District (southwestern Franklin County): Maureen Reedy, another Democratic teacher active in the Senate Bill 5 fight, will face Republican Stephanie Kunze, city councilman in suburban Hilliard.
95th District (Marietta-Carrollton): Another redrawn district where Democrats believe they can challenge an incumbent Republican, Andy Thompson of Marietta. They're putting up Charlie Daniels, who won media attention when he had to give up his job as a state prison guard to run.
98th District (Tuscarawas/southern Holmes): Freshman Rep. Al Landis (R., Dover) is defending this heavily redrawn, competitive district against Joshua O'Farrell, a New Philadelphia lawyer who is a Democrat.
99th District (Ashtabula/northeastern Geauga): Another schoolteacher, John Patterson, will take on incumbent freshman Rep. Casey Kozlowski (R., Pierpont) who was just narrowly picked by this Democratic-leaning seat in 2010. Democrats believe the youthful-looking Mr. Kozlowski is vulnerable without a Republican wave carrying him.
In addition to the 28th District, the one held by Ms. Pillich, Republicans are looking at several Democrat-held seats, including:
2nd District (Richland County): This district has sent a Democrat to Columbus for nearly 40 years, most recently Rep. Jay Goyal of Mansfield, despite its Republican leanings. With Mr. Goyal opting not to seek re-election, Republicans smell blood. They are running local businessman Mark Romanchuk against the Democrats' Ellen Haring, a Mansfield city councilman and teacher.
43rd District (Preble/Montgomery): This previously Dayton-based district has taken a decidedly suburban shift with redistricting, leaving Republicans hopeful they can upset incumbent Rep. Roland Winburn (D., Dayton). Republicans are offering Clayton Mayor Joyce Marie Deitering.
60th District (Lake County): Current Rep. Lorraine Fende (D., Willowick) is term-limited, making this an open race in a competitive district that narrowly supported Mr. Kasich over Mr. Strickland in 2010. Republicans are offering Painesville City Councilman Lori DiNallo against former state representative and current county Commissioner Daniel Troy.
64th District (Trumbull/Ashtabula): Rep. Tom Letson (D., Warren) is seeking a fourth two-year term in this Democratic-performing district, but he's being challenged by a former state representative, Randy Law, of Warren.
There are far fewer opportunities on either side over in the Senate, where Democrats are an endangered breed, outnumbered 23-10. This year's election offers the minority party little hope of gaining ground, with only about half of the districts on the ballot. Democrats are instead looking more toward 2014, especially if a proposed redistricting overhaul on this year's ballot results in newly drawn districts.
Republicans, meanwhile, have a massive campaign war chest to play with.
"We think that the Republicans are weakened in terms of their support for S.B. 5, a direct affront to police officers and teachers," said Sen. Eric Kearney (D., Cincinnati), Senate minority leader. "With the budget cuts to local governments and to schools, we think we can appeal to middle-class voters and to women voters who are more open to the Democratic message. Along with minority voters, that puts us in a good spot."
The sole northwest Ohio district on either party's radar screen is the 26th, where Sen. Dave Burke (R., Marysville) is asking voters to ratify his appointment to the seat last year when former Sen. Karen Gillmor (R., Tiffin) resigned. The Republican-leaning, largely rural district stretches from Marysville to the south to Sandusky Bay to the north, incorporating Sandusky, Seneca, and five other counties. Mr. Burke, a pharmacist and a supporter of Senate Bill 5, faces a challenge from a Democratic retired teacher, Tanyce Addison of Marion County.
Republicans, meanwhile, are looking to add insult to injury by trying to pick up the 30th District that stretches along the Ohio River from Steubenville to Pomeroy. Thanks to redistricting, this is a competitive district on paper, but Mr. Strickland won it by a landslide in 2010. Appointed Sen. Lou Gentile (D., Steubenville) faces a challenge from Republican businessman Shane Thompson of St. Clairsville.
"It's always our top priority to ensure members are re-elected," said Vaughn Flasher, who's running the Senate GOP campaign.
"Beyond that, there are areas of opportunity, and the 30th District certainly fits that bill. The [Republican-performance] index is a full point higher than in [Miami County-based] Senate District 5, and Bill Beegle won."
Mr. Beegle, a Republican, upset a Democratic incumbent, Fred Strahorn, of Dayton, two years ago.
Contact Jim Provance at: email@example.com or 614-221-0496.