WASHINGTON (AP) -- Their four congressional seats considered safe, Ohio Democrats head into the state's primary election looking to take advantage of any openings that might be created by Republican missteps or tea party challenges. But with all 12 GOP incumbents seeking re-election, the odds are stacked against them.
Independent analysts and strategists for both parties say two House districts now held by Republicans are competitive.
Republican Rep. David Joyce faces a primary challenge from Matt Lynch, a tea party candidate who has the backing of Ohio Right to Life and FreedomWorks for America, a conservative nonprofit organization, in Ohio's 14th Congressional District.
The winner will face Cleveland Democrat Michael Wager, a corporate attorney who faces no primary opposition.
And in eastern Ohio, former state Rep. Jennifer Garrison, an anti-abortion, pro-gun rights Democrat, has the backing of the national Democratic Party in her primary against Gregory Howard, a farmer and community activist. The two are vying to face Rep. Bill Johnson, who is unopposed in the GOP primary, in an Appalachian coal region in the 6th Congressional District once seen as classic working-class Democratic turf.
"Ohio gives Democrats a great opportunity to pick up seats where Republican incumbents have been out of step with their districts," said Rep. Steve Israel of New York, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Ohio's primary election is May 6. Democrats hold only four of Ohio's 16 congressional seats even though President Barack Obama won the state in 2012. Their four House districts surround dense urban areas, a small silver lining to a congressional map redrawn heavily in favor of Republicans.
Democrats are testing out fresh candidates to try to broaden their appeal in exurban and rural areas they held in part as recently as 2008, when Ohio Democrats held 10 of 18 House seats.
In some Republican-held districts, candidates are working to capitalize on voter dissatisfaction with the federal health care overhaul.
Democrats hope Lynch can push front-runner Joyce to the right in a swing district dominated by a mix of white-collar professionals and labor union supporters. In 2012, when GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney beat Obama in the district by a slim margin of 51 to 48 percent, Joyce took the congressional seat only after GOP incumbent Steve LaTourette announced his retirement after the primary.
Lynch, a state representative, was among a handful of legislators who sued to stop the expansion of Medicaid in Ohio, pushed through by Republican Gov. John Kasich. Joyce has voted several times in Congress to defund or repeal the health overhaul law but faces broader criticism from tea party supporters for support of spending bills.
With Wager unchallenged in the Democratic primary, the DCCC launched robocalls and a new online ad in March against Joyce, criticizing his opposition to the health care law. The Joyce campaign, which has $1.1 million cash on hand compared to Wager's $347,000, says the GOP incumbent is proud of his votes.
In eastern Ohio, national Democrats are placing their bets on Garrison, an attorney who pulled out of a statewide race for secretary of state in 2009 because her stances against abortion and gun control made her too conservative; she has also said Obama's campaigning would not help her win.
Garrison is in favor of what she has called environmentally friendly fracking, appealing to voters in the coal district, but she faces a tough fight against a better-funded Republican opponent. Howard criticizes what he sees as corporate greed and big-money influence in politics and wants full protection of Social Security and Medicare benefits.
Johnson was first elected as part of the tea party wave in 2010, campaigning on his then-Democratic opponent's vote in favor of the health care bill.
Looking ahead to November, the National Republican Congressional Committee criticizes Garrison as a "rubber stamp" for Democrats who will help Nancy Pelosi become House speaker again.
Analysts and strategists for both parties say Democratic pickups this year are an uphill battle.
"All things being equal, Jennifer Garrison probably has the stronger resume over Bill Johnson," said David Wasserman, House editor for The Cook Political Report, an independent publication. "The problem for Democrats is that she is only going to do a couple points better in today's political environment than President Obama's approval rating, and that's not enough."
In a Quinnipiac University poll in February, 40 percent of Ohio voters said they approve of Obama's job performance, while 55 percent said they disapproved. The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.7 percentage points.
Still, Mark Weaver, a longtime GOP strategist in Ohio advising Johnson's campaign, said Republicans cannot take things for granted.
"Ohio is a center-right state ideologically, but from a partisan analysis, it's a purple state that can be won by either party. If a strong Democrat emerged and ran a good campaign, it's possible to knock off a Republican," he said.
Follow Hope Yen on Twitter: http://twitter.com/hopeyen1