How a Campaign Rumor Started a Political Feeding Frenzy in Ohio

Long-frustrated local officials are eagerly watching to see if a top-tier race may leave them room to finally move up.

When Tim Ryan, a House Democrat from Ohio, said he would consider a 2016 Senate run against Republican Sen. Rob Portman, it hardly set the world on fire. Sure, it would create an intriguing matchup, but that's nearly two years away, and there's a gap between "considering" a run and actually announcing one.

Back in Ryan's district, though, even the possibility of him making a move put the local political class in a frenzy. Former Rep. John Boccieri, a Democrat who lost his House seat during Republicans' 2010 wave, quickly made his interest known in replacing Ryan. And two other Democrats—state Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni and Mahoning County Commissioner Anthony Traficanti—also raised their hands. It's unclear when they'd get another chance: Ryan has held a safely Democratic House seat for a dozen years. (He represented Ohio's reliably Democratic 17th District until it was folded in 2010, and subsequently won a similarly blue seat in the state's newly redrawn 13th District.)

But the fact that Ryan's consideration of a Senate run would cause such ripples is indicative of the frustration local officials feel as they try to break through to the federal level. With so little turnover in the House—85 percent of incumbents kept their seats in 2014—there's a hard ceiling for the vast majority of aspiring representatives. And so only the hint of a crack above is necessary to unleash a flood of local ambition.

"There's a lot of people at the top of the [local] food chain, and [a congressional run is] the only next move for them, so that's why there's so much interest in it," says David Betras, chair of the Democratic Party in Mahoning County, which contains the district's urban center of Youngstown.

In Louisiana and Florida, where sitting members of Congress are floating their names for various marquee races, local officials have been similarly attuned to the discussions. And if the incumbents decide to seek the Senate, eager would-be successors are already talking about running.

Discussions are underway on a somewhat byzantine scenario to replace Republican Rep. John Fleming in Louisiana. He has stated he'd run to replace David Vitter in the Senate if Vitter wins the 2015 governor's race. That would leave Fleming's safely Republican Shreveport-area district wide open as soon as next spring.

A group of interested Republicans is already discussing the possibility, though the state's top-two primary system means they want to take steps to avoid splitting the Republican vote too much—again, if Fleming actually moves on.

"We would probably all get together and decide whose time it was as opposed to all of us throwing our hats in the ring," said state Rep. Alan Seabaugh, who is thinking about running. Other ring-bound hats could include those of freshman state Rep. Mike Johnson and Shreveport City Councilman Oliver Jenkins. Newly elected Judge Jeff Thompson, who ran against Fleming in 2008, is also a whispered possibility.

In some cases, a decision could set off feeding frenzies up and down the political food chain. Look at how Sen. Marco Rubio's ongoing consideration of a 2016 presidential campaign has animated some officials in Florida. If Rubio runs, that would make a bid for his current seat much more attractive—perhaps attractive enough to induce Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch, who has been mentioned as a 2016 Senate contender, to hop into the race. And below Deutch, eager eyes are looking upward. State Sen. Joseph Abruzzo, a Democrat who will face state-level term limits in his current job, has already stated his interest in Deutch's safely Democratic House seat.

Abruzzo is unlikely to be the last candidate to express interest in a district as attractive as Deutch's, said Florida Democratic strategist Ben Pollara: "Anybody with an honorific in front of their name would be gunning for that seat."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated Ryan's district. It is Ohio's 13th.