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COLUMN: Political stories worth watching in 2017

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Posted at 7:00 AM, Dec 28, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-28 07:00:11-05

We’ve heard it time and time again: 2016 was the most unusual year in politics many have seen in their lifetimes.

But don't fret. 2017 is already shaping up to resemble the political version of a Hunger Games sequel.

Ohio Republicans are embattled in an inner-party war that rivals the food fight at your family’s Thanksgiving Day disaster, err, dinner.

Few Cincinnati Democrats expect to escape the city’s local races without some deep battle wounds.

And Donald Trump – the guy who made 2016 the most unconventional presidential election we’ve seen in a while – gets sworn in as the 45th president of the United States.

Oh. There's more.

Here are stories political junkies will want to follow in 2017:

How do Hamilton County Republicans rebound?

Nationally Republicans picked up huge wins across the country, but here in this corner of Ohio our frequently sought-after swing county turned blue.

The GOP lost control of the Hamilton County Commission board and Democrats pulled off two unexpected wins: the county clerk of courts and a judge seat on the court of appeals.

Add in the fact that President-elect Donald Trump won Ohio overwhelmingly by eight points - but lost Hamilton County by nine points, and things look grim for Republicans here.

Plus, next year offers little chance for Republicans to pick up any new seats. The local GOP is sure to defend Republican Amy Murray’s seat on Cincinnati City Council and will support any other Republicans who decide to run for council. But most of the high-profile seats up for grabs will be tough for Republicans to wrangle control of while competing on Democratic-controlled turf.

Expect 2017 to look a little like the Cincinnati Reds’ rebuilding season for the county’s Republicans. Hamilton County Chairman Alex Triantafilou tells us he’ll be busy recruiting candidates for judge seats and county offices in the coming years.

What will Hamilton County be like with Democrats in charge?

With Democrats in control of both Hamilton County and Cincinnati a lot is expected to change here in southwest Ohio.

Democrats Todd Portune, a 16-year veteran of the board, and newcomer Denise Driehaus will lead the commission. After six years in the majority, Chris Monzel will be the solo Republican.

How the city and county agree – or, disagree – over the multi-billion dollar overhaul of the county sewer system is expected to change almost immediately. Also, look for the county to be more involved and spend more money on economic development and transportation.

Many are watching to see if the county and city can start to forge a friendlier relationship with the same party in control.

2017 a rebuilding year for Ohio Democrats, too

Ohio Democrats are trying to avoid a repeat of 2014, when the party lost every statewide elected office, ran a terrible gubernatorial candidate, and gave up a historic number of statehouse seats to Republicans. 

2017 will be key for the state’s Democrats – led by Cincinnati-native David Pepper – to pick charismatic candidates with strong records who can go toe-to-toe with some well-known and well-funded Republicans.

Even four years after some historic state losses, momentum is not on the Democrats’ side here. 2016 was another bad year for Ohio Democrats; Hillary Clinton lost the state in an unexpected landslide and former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland ran a poor Senate campaign. 

But Democrats might have a pretty good bench next year, with several experienced or up-and-coming politicians looking to run for statewide office. (More on that below.)

Who will replace John Kasich?

One thing that makes the state of American politics so miserable is the people who announce their candidacy for an election nearly two years in advance, forcing us all to be dragged through months – sometimes years – of nonstop election coverage.

Buckle up, Ohio.

The race for major statewide elections has already begun, with many Republicans and Democrats already staking out which seats they’ll run for in 2018, but holding off on the official, public announcement. From the state treasurer seat to the governor, all statewide offices – all of which are controlled by Republicans – will be up for election in 2018. 

The governor’s race could be extra messy because several well-known and high-profile Republicans are interested in the job, which will force GOP party faithful to pick sides in a gubernatorial primary.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, Lieutenant Gov. Mary Taylor and Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted have all hinted at interest in the job. Earlier this year, DeWine goofed-up and confirmed his plan to run as Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s successor in front of a reporter.

Democrats have a number of candidates lining up on their side, too. Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, former state representative Connie Pillich, Ohio Sen. Joe Schiavoni and Richard Cordray, the former Ohio Attorney General and current director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, have all expressed interest.

Watch for official announcements in 2017, although some have already begun.

Earlier this month, Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel released a video announcing his bid for the U.S. Senate seat. That could pit him against fellow Republican Rep. Pat Tiberi (R- Genoa Township) who’s expected to jump in as well. Whoever wins the GOP primary will have to fight incumbent Democrat Sherrod Brown for the job.

What will happen to John Kasich?

Speaking of Kasich, we might start learning more about his post-gubernatorial plans next year.

Many have speculated on his future, which surely changed on Nov. 8 when his political arch-rival Donald Trump won the presidency. Before Election Day, it seemed clear Kasich was at the very least toying with the idea of running for president again. He spent much of the summer and fall campaigning for Republicans across the country to help build his own political network.

But the Trump win changes everything for Kasich, who was hoping a Trump loss would send the party in disarray and in search of a new leader … preferably a party loyalist and “moderate” Republican from Columbus, Ohio. Now, even some of the Ohio Republicans who strongly supported Kasich have hopped aboard the Trump Train. (See below.)

If Trump’s presidency turns out to be a disaster, Plan B could still be in the cards for Kasich. Otherwise, many believe his future could include a run for U.S. Senate, where Kasich would still have influence on policy, or a job as Ohio State University’s president, where he could carry on as an executive, this time for his alma mater.

Will Trump embolden Republicans?

He already has, in a sense.

Consider this: Weeks after Trump was elected, Ohio Republicans felt confident enough to pass a bill that bans abortions in Ohio once a heartbeat is detected. For years, the state’s conservative lawmakers steered clear of passing the so-called heartbeat bill because they feared it would be deemed unconstitutional.

But Trump – and his promise to appoint pro-life, conservative Supreme Court justices – has changed that.

Fiery rhetoric was on full display from Republican politicians, too, when Trump came to Cincinnati in December. Several of them spoke passionately about Judeo-Christian values.

Ohio Treasurer – and newly minted U.S. Senate candidate -- Josh Mandel bashed “sanctuary cities” for undocumented immigrants. Ohio Senate president Keith Faber told the crowd, “It’s OK for us to recognize that it’s not radical Presbyterians that are killing people at Ohio State.”

Three weeks earlier, some of those Republicans couldn’t be caught on stage with Trump. But Trump’s win brought out the ultra-conservative talk in Cincinnati. Watch to see if this type of rhetoric continues when these Republicans launch their statewide campaigns for office.

Trump's victory has also led to some disputes within the GOP. In recent weeks, pro-Trump Republicans have been busy pointing fingers at some of their own, such as Ohio Republican Party leader Matt Borges, who was sometimes publicly critical of Trump. We'll find out Jan. 6, when Borges is up for re-election as the party's head, if resistance to Trump will cost him politically. 

Local Democrats face trouble on the horizon, too

Parts of 2017 won’t be pleasant for some Democrats, either, who will likely be busy hurling attacks at one another in their quest to become the next mayor or keep their jobs on Cincinnati City Council.

The race for Cincinnati mayor will pit at least two Democrats, incumbent Mayor John Cranley and Cincinnati City Council member Yvette Simpson against one another. Other Democrats could also jump into the race.

This race could deepen divisions between Simpson, who tends to identify with more progressive policies, and Cranley, who often falls on the more conservative side of things.

Even Democrats admit they’re not excited to see how the mayoral election unfolds next year.

“I am not looking forward to this year in the way I looked forward to 2016,” Tim Burke, the leader of the county’s Democratic Party told WCPO reporter Paula Christian. “Last year (2016) the Democrats worked together and helped contribute to a pretty successive year here in Hamilton County. I worry that 2017 will not be nearly as harmonious for Democrats because they will be contesting with one another.”