Friday, June 20, 2014

The Twenty Most Interesting Races of 2014

Not all political races are created equally.  Just ask the voters who have to turn out for Louie Gohmert each year.  And yet, it's also true that not all competitive races are created equally.  There are races that are competitive but are generally fairly boring, primarily because they will likely reflect the national mood or don't have a specific angle or politician driving them into being something fascinating to watch.

That's not the case for these twenty races, which in my opinion are the the twenty I'm most intrigued by how they will turn out in November (and in a couple of cases, slightly earlier).  I figured we haven't done too much politics this week, so this was a great time to give this a go!  Here are the twenty races that I am most intrigued/following the closest this year (they're listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily order of interest):

Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR)

Arkansas Senate

Why It Intrigues Me: On the surface, it’s not a seat that I would consider particularly competitive.  The state went against the Democrats hard in recent years, none more so than in 2010, when incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln lost by more than 20-points without a scandal and after two terms in office (this is basically unheard of in Senate politics).  And yet Mark Pryor continually racks up support in poll after poll after poll.  For some reason Tom Cotton is not resonating with Arkansas State voters, and Pryor has become one of (if not the) most important senators in the battle to retain the Democratic majority.


Why It Intrigues Me: With the renewed focus on immigration, this is the seat that the Democrats may pick up as a result of the Republicans’ continued refusal to pass any immigration bills into law.  The district is over 70% Hispanic, and went for President Obama twice.  Amanda Renteria wasn’t the Democrats first choice, but that may not matter if she can get some turnout in a district that went for President Obama by 11-points in 2012 but still elected Republican David Valadao.

City Councilman Carl DeMaio (R-CA)

Why It Intrigues Me: The Republicans have not elected an openly gay man to Congress since Jim Kolbe retired, and while they have several gay candidates running this year under their banner, none seems more likely to win than San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio.  Incumbent Rep. Scott Peters has demographics in the district on his side (the seat went for President Obama twice), but DeMaio has the polls headed in his direction.

Colorado Senate

Why It Intrigues Me: Everyone and his mother in the political world has been talking about what a superb candidate Rep. Cory Gardner (R) is, and I’m genuinely curious if he can hold up to the hype against first-term Sen. Mark Udall (D).  Udall is hardly the best campaigner the Democrats have in the country, but he’s won statewide before and this is an increasingly blue state.  Juxtaposing that conventional wisdom, though, is the recent string of gun laws in the state that recalled two Democratic state senators and the potential for the very anti-immigration Rep. Tom Tancredo to be the gubernatorial candidate (thus driving up Hispanic voters, aiding Udall).  Expect Gardner to talk guns and Udall to talk immigration until the electorate picks which issue they care about more.

Former Gov. Charlie Crist (D-FL)
Florida Governor

Why It Intrigues Me: This is arguably the most interesting race in the country.  You have a pretty unpopular incumbent in Gov. Rick Scott (R), who happens to have more money than God to spend on this race if he so chooses.  On the opposite end is former Gov. Charlie Crist, a Democrat who was very recently (like four years ago recently) was a Republican incumbent governor running for the Senate and positioning himself for a White House run in 2012.  Crist leads slightly, but I’ll be curious if A) Scott’s avalanche of spending in this race has an effect and B) if Democrats will get out for a man they vigorously disliked just a few years ago.

Hawaii Senate and Gubernatorial Democratic Primaries

Why It Intrigues Me: I’m grouping these together because they are very linked.  Gov. Neil Abercrombie has actually been down in a few polls to State Sen. David Ige after a rough first term in office, and could well be taken down in a primary.  Part of his unpopularity was around not appointing Rep. Colleen Hanabusa to the late Sen. Daniel Inouye’s seat, but oddly enough Hanabusa is struggling to maintain traction against incumbent Sen. Brian Schatz.  This could be a weird copy of the Alaska Murkowski races in the mid-Aughts, where Gov. Frank Murkowski lost his primary (to Sarah Palin, no less), in 2006 in part because of his appointing his daughter to her Senate seat but his daughter Lisa managed to win her general election race in 2004.  Schatz and Ige could both very well win here, though almost any combination would be believable.

Illinois Governor

Why It Intrigues Me: Illinois is one of the bluest states in the country, and Gov. Pat Quinn had better hope that holds, as he is also one of the country’s most unpopular incumbents.  Despite that fact, he may still be able to hold on against venture capitalist Bruce Rauner in part by running against Rauner’s career.  Quinn’s only real option is to drive up huge numbers of Democrats in Cook County (Illinois is so population-imbalanced that he could theoretically lose every other county in the state and still win the race if his numbers in Cook County are high enough).  He’s made a career out of pulling victories when everyone had given him up for politically dead, so we’ll see.

State Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA)
Iowa Senate

Why It Intrigues Me: Iowa has never elected a woman to Congress, and has a very good shot of doing it this year, either with State Sen. Staci Appel in the open third district, or here, with State Sen. Joni Ernst (R) running against Rep. Bruce Braley (D) for Tom Harkin’s (D) seat.  However, recent polling shows that it will be men, not women, who hold the key to Ernst winning her election, as she is down with women.  This is one of the few Senate races that I can clearly state that the Republicans seem to have the better candidate (Braley has been gaffe-prone), but this is a seat where the Democrats have a slight edge.  Will that be enough?  And will Ernst try and play the glass-ceiling card?

Kentucky Senate

Why It Intrigues Me: If it weren’t Mitch McConnell and Kentucky, we’d all be talking about Alison Lundergan Grimes winning this seat.  Polling has shown the race in a dead heat, but Grimes has the slightest of edges in that polling, and against a five-term incumbent that would be a death knell for McConnell.  The national headwinds are clearly at the GOP’s back, and McConnell is one of the best campaigners in the country, but Grimes is holding steady.  Could the Republicans really get a wave nationally but local hatred for the Minority Leader cost them their 51st seat?  It could happen, which makes this the only race to rival Florida’s gubernatorial election for most intriguing race of the cycle.

Eliot Cutler (I-ME)
Maine Governor

Why It Intrigues Me: Four years ago, one of the biggest upsets in the country was Paul LePage winning the Maine governor’s race because of progressives splitting between the Democrat and Independent candidate Eliot Cutler.  Cutler is back again, as is LePage (who is pretty unpopular in this blue state), but the Democrats have a better candidate in Rep. Mike Michaud.  Michaud has the edge for now, but if Cutler gains steam (Maine loves their independents), this could be another victory for LePage.

Massachusetts Democratic Gubernatorial Primary

Why It Intrigues Me: Over the past week, State Treasurer Steve Grossman won the state convention for the Democrats, meaning that he heads into the September primaries (one of the latest in the country) with institutional advantages over Attorney General Martha Coakley, though at this point Coakley still leads in the polls.  Coakley was the Democrat who lost Ted Kennedy’s seat to Republican Scott Brown, so this political comeback will either doom her political career or resuscitate it, depending on the outcome.

Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN)

Why It Intrigues Me: Four years ago, a number of seemingly unbeatable veterans of Congress (Ike Skelton, Jim Oberstar, Solomon Ortiz, Rick Boucher) lost their seats after decades of service.  There are very few longtime conservative Democrats left in the House, but Collin Peterson is one of the few.  Peterson is facing his toughest race in twenty years to State Sen. Torrey Westrom (who-interesting tidbit, is one of the only legally-blind politicians in the country), and could be in trouble if there’s some sort of wave this year.  I was completely surprised when Peterson decided to run for reelection, quite frankly, and will be curious if he still has the fire in him to run a truly competitive campaign.

Mississippi Republican Senate Runoff

If I have more time this weekend, I will try and tackle this race a bit more in-depth, but whenever a longtime veteran of Washington (Thad Cochran is currently the longest-serving Republican in Congress) is in jeopardy of losing their seat it’s a big deal.  The ramifications from this race could be huge, particularly in terms of bolstering the Tea Party for the rest of the year into 2016, as well as what the impact the third consecutive cycle where a longtime Republican senator lost re-nomination (we can split hairs on Arlen Specter, but he would have lost even worse to Toomey) will be on other incumbents.  John McCain and Chuck Grassley in particular may well reconsider going at it again when they could get attacked from the right and mar storied careers.

State Rep. Lucy Flores (D-NV)
Nevada Lieutenant Governor’s Race

The most obscure battle on this list, I have written a few times about how this is really a prequel race to what may be the great Senate battle of 2016.  State Sen. Mark Hutchison is the chosen candidate of popular Governor Brian Sandoval, whereas State Rep. Lucy Flores is the handpicked Democrat of Sen. Harry Reid.  A victory for Hutchison would prove Sandoval has the upper hand in Nevada politics, whereas a win by Flores would put Sandoval in a position where he’d give up the governorship to a Democrat if he were to run for the Senate, something that would almost certainly deter him from running.

New Hampshire Senate

One of the absolute weirdest races of the cycle, though it’s questionable at this point how competitive it will be.  The real question is how the people of New Hampshire react to Scott Brown switching states to run for the GOP and another Senate seat, and how much money the Koch Brothers decide to throw at the race.  Jeanne Shaheen is a better candidate than either Martha Coakley or Elizabeth Warren, and this race could have big implications down ballot, as New Hampshire voters have been oddly apt to straight-ticket voting, but not necessarily for the same party.

Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH)
New Hampshire-1

Rep. Carol Shea-Porter has one of the oddest electoral histories in the United States House.  If you look at her polling averages, she has been behind in the polls every time that she’s run for the House, yet she’s managed to win 75% of the time (and her 2006 victory was arguably the biggest congressional upset of the night).  She’s facing former Rep. Frank Guinta for the third time this year, and the big question is A) can she pull off a victory in a year that favors the Republicans (she hasn’t been able to yet) and B) whether having Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen pushing at the top of the ticket will carry her over the edge.  Expect this to be the closest election in the first primary state, which may well bring Hillary Clinton to New Hampshire.

North Carolina Senate

In terms of pure tossup races, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better one than North Carolina.  Neither of the two competitors are particularly compelling politicians: Speaker Thom Tillis (R) was the third or fourth choice of establishment Republicans, whereas Kay Hagan didn’t so much win in 2008 as much as Elizabeth Dole lost that year.  However, this is perhaps the truest wall in the Senate.  While Arkansas is starting to lean toward the Democrats, and Alaska is surely important (and Mary Landrieu could still rebound), it’s North Carolina that will be delivering a sucker punch to one party or the other: if Tillis wins, it’s hard to see the Republicans not taking the Senate.  If Hagan wins, Harry Reid’s majority is pretty much assured.  There’s a reason that both parties have already made high seven-digit ad buys in this very expensive state: so goes North Carolina, so goes the Senate.

State Sen. Wendy Davis (D-TX)
Texas Governor

Easily the least competitive race on the list, the better question here is about the future.  State Sen. Wendy Davis (D) won’t win despite being a hero to the liberal establishment, but she is the first Democratic candidate since Ann Richards in 1994 to have had real support in Texas.  She’ll have millions upon millions of dollars to run a legitimate campaign, incredible name recognition across the state, and so this will be a great map of how the Democrats will be able to win Texas in future years.  Frequently Democratic pundits ask “what would happen if we actually tried in Texas?”  This year we’ll find out.

Wisconsin Governor

And we’ll close with this race.  Though not instantly compelling (it’s hard to make an argument that Mary Burke is a more dynamic personality than incumbent Gov. Scott Walker), there are a lot of great factors happening in this race.  First off is the fact that the Democrats, despite the blue nature of this state, haven’t been able to beat Walker both in 2010 and in a future recall election, making this his third chance to win the Badger State.  Walker also has serious presidential hopes going into 2016, but he has to win this race to have any sort of chance to be the Tea Party hopeful in 2016.  And finally, there’s the scandals effecting the governor’s race here-will Walker’s alleged involvement in outside groups in his 2012 recall threaten to steal his momentum?  All of which are questions that warrant this being added to our list.

Those are my thoughts this year, though I’m sure there are other races you’re excited to see the results of-what are they?  What is going to be the signature race of 2014?

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