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Whither Ohio as the Ultimate House Battleground?

The Buckeye State’s campaign battleground is greater than the sum of its parts.

Thanks to redistricting, only a few competitive House seats remain in Ohio. But Senate and statewide races remain competitive, expensive and marquee contests.

“When it comes to the presidential, U.S. Senate seats or when the Democrats field a credible gubernatorial candidate, Ohio will be a battleground,” former state GOP Chairman Kevin DeWine said. “I think redistricting has rendered most of the districts as not very competitive in the general election.”

Ohio will not host a Senate race in 2014, so local operatives are already looking ahead to contests in 2016 and 2018. First-term Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican, is up for re-election in two years, but Republicans view him as a potential candidate on the national ticket.

Portman can run for both Senate and on a national ticket, according to the Ohio secretary of state’s office. Local election law dictates that if a Senate vacancy occurs, the governor appoints a replacement who serves until the next statewide election.

If there’s an opportunity to run for Senate, Republicans say state Treasurer Josh Mandel is eyeing a second campaign. Mandel ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 2012 and faces a tough re-election to the treasurer’s office this year. If Mandel wins another term, he could try to oust Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, again in 2018 — but he’ll likely have company.

Multiple sources said Republican Rep. Steve Stivers is giving serious consideration to running for Senate as well. Stivers is currently a vice chairman for finance at the National Republican Congressional Committee — a position that allows him to cultivate relationships with national donors who would be useful for an expensive Senate campaign.

Democrats are not enthusiastic about taking on Portman as an incumbent. In 2013, state Rep. Bob Hagan, a Democrat, filed to run against Portman in 2016 and promised to run a feisty campaign in a Facebook statement.

But if Portman opts to not seek re-election — for whatever reason, including higher office — Democrats expect several candidates to run for the open Senate seat.

“Then it’s a different scenario; then it’s chaos,” said Steve Fought, communications director to Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio. “Everybody’s running then.”

Ohio Democrats most frequently name three rising stars in the party who could run for Senate: state Senate Minority Whip Nina Turner, state Rep. Connie Pillich, and Rep. Tim Ryan.

This cycle, Turner and Pillich are running for different statewide offices, secretary of state and state treasurer, respectively. If they win this cycle, and they want to pursue a hypothetically open Senate seat in 2016, they would have to start preparing another statewide bid soon after the 2014 elections.

The House map battleground is subdued — at least compared to the past decade, when Ohio usually featured several competitive House races every cycle. There are 12 Republicans and four Democrats in the House delegation. Before last cycle, Republicans drew a congressional map that packed the state’s Democrats into four House districts. No serious Republican would argue the party has a chance at picking up any more seats in Ohio.

There are a few GOP-held House seats that operatives see as potentially competitive, but they all tilt in the Republicans’ favor.

The most competitive House seat in Ohio is the 14th District, which is currently represented by Republican Rep. David Joyce. Attorney Michael Wager, a Democrat, is challenging Joyce this cycle. If Wager fails in November, one Ohio Democrat said he could try again in 2016 with the benefit of presidential-year turnout.

Democrats also named state Rep. Kathleen Clyde as a future contender in the 14th District.

Democrats remain bullish about their chances in Republican Rep. Bill Johnson’s 6th District. National Democrats have promoted their recruit there, former state Rep. Jennifer Garrison, as one of their top candidates of the cycle. If she fails, Ohio Democrats say that state Sen. Lou Gentile could give also give Johnson trouble down the road, although he declined to run this cycle.

Republicans expect Rep. Michael R. Turner’s district to be competitive when he retires, although he’s given no indication he plans to leave Congress anytime soon. When he does, Democrats will likely play for the seat. Their top up-and-comer in the district is recently elected Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley. State Reps. Cliff Rosenberger and Jim Butler are potential GOp successors.

Meanwhile, both parties are grooming deep benches in the strong partisan areas that make up the rest of the House map. That includes the 8th District, currently represented by Speaker John. A. Boehner. If he left office, Republicans name state Senate President Keith Faber, state Sen. Bill Coley, former state Sen. Gary Cates or Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones as GOP contenders.

If Stivers runs for Senate, state and national operatives name state Sen. Jim Hughes and state Rep. Stephanie Kunze as future GOP contenders for his sprawling district in central Ohio.

Democrats concede they do not have much of a shot at Republican Rep. Steve Chabot’s 1st District seat. But they have their eye on Cincinnati Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld. With Sittenfeld at only age 29, Democrats hope he can build a career over the next eight years and be prepared to run for a more favorable version of the Cincinnati-based district after next decade’s round of redistricting in 2022.

Farm Team is a weekly state-by-state look at the up-and-coming politicos who may eventually run for Congress.

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