By DAVID SKOLNICK
VINDICATOR POLITICS WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- The National Republican Congressional Committee is taking a close look at two Mahoning Valley congressional races in an effort to wrest the districts from Democrats.
"I think the 3rd District [in the Dayton area] probably presents our best pickup opportunity in the state, but these two aren't far behind that," said Carl Forti, an NRCC spokesman, about the 17th and 6th districts seats.
The NRCC has identified about 50 competitive U.S. House races this year, and includes the 17th District in that select group, Forti said.
"The 6th is probably hovering on the edge right there," he said.
There are 435 U.S. House seats. All are up for election in November.
Kim Rubey, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said she is "extremely confident" Democratic candidates Timothy J. Ryan of Niles and Ted Strickland of Lucasville will win the November general elections for the 17th and 6th districts, respectively.
"We'll do what it takes to ensure victory in both districts," she said. "We'll do whatever the campaigns need from us."
Democrats need to pick up six additional House seats in the November election to take control of the legislative body, thus making each competitive race important to both parties, Forti and Rubey said.
Forti acknowledges that under normal circumstances, it would be difficult for a Republican to capture the 17th District seat because the district -- which includes portions of Trumbull, Mahoning, Summit and Portage counties -- is overwhelmingly Democratic.
But with the inclusion of U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. and labor leader Warren Davis as independent candidates, both of whom are expected to attract mostly Democratic voters, it's a winnable seat for state Rep. Ann Womer Benjamin of Aurora, the Republican candidate, Forti said.
"You've got interesting political dynamics in what would probably otherwise be considered a pretty safe Democratic seat that may allow us to win that one," he said. "The opportunity is there for the Democratic vote to get split several ways, which leaves a big opportunity for the Republican."
The NRCC has pledged at least $67,000 toward Womer Benjamin's campaign, Forti said.
"Most of our funding decisions aren't made until late in the summer so as things progress, it could increase," he said.
Republicans are not terribly concerned that Ryan will be in the race instead of U.S. Rep. Thomas C. Sawyer of Akron, an eight-term incumbent whom Ryan defeated in the Democratic primary, Forti said.
"No, we're not particularly disappointed," he said about Ryan's victory. "Now you have a case where the Democrats are going to have to spend money on the race in order to keep it. If you had an incumbent running, it may not have been necessary."
As the incumbent, Sawyer had the DCCC's support in the primary, Rubey said. But national Democrats are pleased with Ryan's victory and will do all they can to ensure his election, she said. House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt and DCC Chairwoman Nita Lowey have placed congratulatory calls to Ryan and offered their help to him, she said.
National Democrats and Republicans are watching the 6th District race between Strickland, a four-term incumbent, and Republican Michael Halleck of Salem, but not as closely as the 17th District.
A state redistricting effort has Mahoning County, except its northeast portion, along with Columbiana, Jefferson and Belmont counties in the 12-county 6th District that travels for more than 300 miles along Ohio's eastern border. Strickland has represented six of the 12 counties in the district for nearly eight years.
Republicans believe Halleck -- who is from the upper portion of the district where most of the population is located -- will provide a viable challenge to Strickland, who has never represented that northern section.
"The 6th presents another opportunity, and we're going to have to see how that race develops," said Forti, who added that he did not know how much money the NRCC will give Halleck. "It might be one that we could go in and steal."