Sunday, September 14, 2014

The 25 Most Intriguing Races of 2014

A few months ago, I did a rundown of the twenty most intriguing races of 2014, and I figured it was time for a follow-up.  Politics is an extremely fluid beast, and with all of the primary elections now done (and a pretty routine primary season it was, Eric Cantor and Neil Abercrombie not withstanding), it's time to exclusively focus on the general election.

While there are no races on that list that I don't find intriguing still (politics is an interesting topic for me, and even when a race becomes less competitive watching the margin of loss and the exit polling is a fascinating endeavor), I do think that a few of the races on that list have shifted.  California's 21st district, for example, no longer seems like a likely option for the Democrats and I don't know if Wendy Davis will be a great indication of where the Texas Democratic Party is headed, even with her raising an abnormally large sum of money (see Meg Whitman for a comparable example).  That being said, you'll see a few holdovers from the last list, though even they have had a slight shift in their focus and why I am intrigued.  Unlike the June list, all of the below races are expected to be somewhat to extremely competitive, though that may not remain so in the coming weeks.  Without further adieu, then, these are the 25 races whose results I am most anxious for as we move into November (presented alphabetically by state).

Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK)
Alaska Senate

These races are alphabetical, but honestly, this would be the number one ranked race if we were going by importance, so I'm glad it's first.  While other races have taken this title throughout the year, this battle appears to be the most significant contest in the race for the Senate.  If Democratic Sen. Mark Begich wins a second term, there is a strong chance that the Democrats have held onto the majority.  However, if we are seeing a victory from Attorney General Dan Sullivan, you're likely looking at Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.  There is no other Senate race I would say is so indicative of who will control the Senate, and with polling in the state historically being sketchy, we may not have any idea until November of which side ultimately takes this battle.  I will say that Begich, who was running a near perfect campaign up until the last few weeks, went too far in his negative attack ads against Sullivan and is going to have to either continue the full court press and hope it works, or do a quick turn (despite what people consistently say, negative campaigning is generally effective).  Either way, if you're sending money to an important race or are trying to influence a specific person to vote, Alaska is where your attention should go.


There are three interesting House races happening in Arizona, but of the three, the race to reelect Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick is surely the most interesting (primarily because I think the Democrats lose the second district and hold the ninth, but the first could go either way).  Recently, the Republicans may have played the wrong hand by depicting Kirkpatrick in an ad as a woman wearing high heels walking around Washington (Kirkpatrick ran a clever ad focusing on the cowboys boots she's had since she was eighteen as a counter).  Either way, this is the sort of battle that Democrats have been focusing on their "War on Women" message, as well as one where Latino voters will be crucial.  Kirkpatrick and Mitt Romney won this district two years ago, making it one of those rare seats that did ticket splitting with the national ticket (this increasingly is a rarity).  Kirkpatrick's support of the DREAM Act was a risky move with moderates in the district, so she has to be hoping that it plays strongly with the 18% of the district that is Latino.  Definitely a late-in-the-night race to watch for in November.

Former Rep. Doug Ose (R-CA)

One of those rare Republicans who has some solid moderate credentials and survived a contentious primary, former Rep. Doug Ose has to be a dream candidate for the California GOP: great profile, former member of the House, and can self-finance.  So far he's been doing well, gaining moderate and even Democratic support in the district.  Still, Rep. Ami Bera does have a district that went (narrowly) for President Obama.  This is one of several races that President Obama's network may be worthwhile and critical to Democratic victories-a number of Democrats across the country are in districts the President won by single digit points, but they have to overcome the historical drop-off Democrats experience in midterm elections.  Quite frankly, these are the districts (and I'll highlight a few of them in this article) where President Obama, who has been anathema to Democrats on the campaign trail, may be worth sending out to campaign to boost Democratic turnout.  Either way, this is one of the two truly fascinating California House races this cycle.


The other one, however, is probably the most fascinating, and one where I think the Democrat is currently the underdog, though polling has been mixed and this is a coin toss race.  Openly gay former San Diego City Councilmember Carl DeMaio is running for the GOP, meaning that if he were to win he would be the only openly gay member of the GOP caucus in either house of Congress.  Like Bera, incumbent Rep. Scott Peters won his first term in 2012 and is in a district that President Obama won but by a slim margin, so the Democratic base is there but DeMaio is popular and running the better campaign.  This should be one of the country's closest races, and thanks to the Pacific time zone, one of the last ones called.

Gov. John Hickenlooper (D-CO)
Colorado Governor

There are three major races in Colorado this year (it’s worth noting that CO-6 voters are the only voters in the country where you would get to vote in a true tossup Senate, Gubernatorial, and House race, so if you live there and don’t vote, you should respond no the next time someone asks if you’re a responsible citizen), but the gubernatorial intrigues me most because it’s the one where the outcome seems the most influx (the Senate race has about a 60% chance of going to Democratic Mark Udall and the House race has about a 60% chance of going to Republican Mike Coffman, both the incumbents).  Immigration and gun control dominate this race, and incumbent Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) could win or lose as a result of either to former Rep. Bob Beauprez.  Turnout will be extremely key here, and will be a solid indication of where Colorado, one of the most vital swing states in the country, is headed come 2016-if the Democrats run the board for the fourth straight election in a row this could be over as a viable state for the GOP.  However, if Republicans win here there’s clearly some game left to play.

Connecticut Governor

Connecticut is one of three solidly Democratic states with Democratic governors that have entered true tossup status (you’ll see one of those states on this list later, the other is Illinois, which may be a lost cause for the blue team at this point as Gov. Pat Quinn is insanely unpopular).  The same has to be said for first-term Gov. Dan Malloy, who has persistently run within the margin of error but a couple of points behind former Ambassador Tom Foley (for the record, this is a rematch of the 2010 election that Malloy won in one of the closest margins of that cycle).  Still, this is a very Democratic state and with New England going sharper and sharper blue, Malloy could win based solely on the letter behind his name (it’s happened before).  This will be a pretty decent barometer for the Republicans that they aren’t getting their wave if Malloy wins, as this is one of three governor’s races I would suspect they pickup at this point in the cycle.

Florida Governor

Our third gubernatorial race in a row (there are eight on this list, actually, and that’s not including Arkansas, Pennsylvania, and Illinois, all of which I suspect will switch hands; for all of the focus on the Senate, the gubernatorial races this year have a LOT to offer politically), this is a race that has been fought hard with tens of millions of dollars likely to be spent by November, but overall incumbent Gov. Rick Scott (R) has taken a small but not insignificant lead over former Gov. Charlie Crist, who switched parties to run for this seat.  Like everything involving Florida, this seat hearkens back to the White House and the race for 2016, as having the governor of the largest swing state be on your side would be a vital asset.  Expect Hillary Clinton to make one of her few stops this election cycle on behalf of Crist as a result of that (Bill Clinton, despite a very testy relationship with Crist, has already stopped by), and perhaps even a stop or two from President Obama, as Crist’s biggest obstacle may not be swing voters but instead Democratic base voters who are lukewarm about his candidacy.  While the media will call whoever wins the Senate the winner of the night, the victor of the Florida governorship would probably be a close second.

Gwen Graham (D-FL)

Easily one of the oddest races, in my opinion, of the cycle.  Rep. Steve Southerland (R) has held this district for two cycles, and while he had a close run in 2012, this is a Romney seat and one that, while marginal, consistently votes straight ticket.  And yet, Southerland is one of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents in the country thanks to a truly spectacular campaign run by Gwen Graham, daughter of legendary Florida politician Bob Graham (both a former governor and senator, and the guy Al Gore should have picked in 2000 as he would have won the White House).  Some pundits have even gone so far as to say Graham is in the lead, but public polling in the district is shockingly hard to find.  Either way, this is not quite a canary in the coal mine (since Graham is outperforming most of her fellow Democrats), but it’s surely one to tune into, particularly if the Democrats are having a rough night as it may be a rare silver lining.  If Graham wins, watch for her to be mentioned for higher office almost immediately, as Florida’s Democratic bench is famously lacking.

Georgia Senate

Part of the problem with only including 25 races is that there are more than 25 interesting ones, and Georgia has one of those races.  I could have just as easily included their gubernatorial race, which has shown a slight edge to Gov. Nathan Deal (R), but could well turn into a race for State Sen. Jason Carter, grandson of former President Carter if Democratic turnout is high enough in Atlanta.

Still, though, Georgia’s Senate seat is the one where the intrigue is happening.  Most polling in the state has shown David Perdue (R) with a small but not impossible to overcome lead against Michelle Nunn (D) in this open Republican seat.  I said above that Alaska is the most pivotal race in this cycle, but if the Democrats lose there Georgia is probably their next best option, though Perdue clearly has the slight advantage here.  Two factors are critical in Georgia-one is Nunn’s ability to get out unregistered voters, which is a major push in the state and why First Lady Michelle Obama made this the first stop on her fall campaign tour; Nunn will have to do spectacularly well with African-American voters (who will largely decide this race-a lot has been said this cycle about the importance of African-American voters in key races, and that’s the most true in Georgia’s Senate and gubernatorial elections).  The second is how well Libertarian candidate Amanda Swafford does this cycle.  A lot of focus so far this cycle has been on the near certain runoff in Louisiana and how Mary Landrieu may be the deciding factor in the Senate (if the Republicans only win by six seats, she would certainly be), but Georgia is also a possibility for a runoff if no one hits 50% (this happened in 2008 when the sixty seat majority was on the line for the Democrats).  If this goes to a runoff and the Senate majority is still in play (a very realistic scenario), expect tens of millions in outside money to go to the Peach State.

Mayor Mufi Hannemann (I-HI)
Hawaii Governor

After the shocking loss by incumbent Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D) in the Aloha State, the playing field is completely restacked.  Under normal circumstances, State Sen. David Ige (D) would be in the lead in this strongly blue state over former Lt. Governor Duke Aiona, but former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann is running as a third party candidate and is making life extremely difficult for Ige, since Hannemann is a former Democrat with strong name recognition in the state, so his third party stance probably isn’t inflated in the polls (though Hannemann has become a bit of a joke as far as actually winning elections in the state, considering this will be his third in a row where he will be clobbered, even if he only reaches 10% of the electorate that could swing the state to the Republicans).  This is a state where you can expect to see President Obama, who is wildly popular in the state, out on the campaign trail for Ige, which will be slightly awkward since he didn’t back him in the primary (politics=strange bedfellows).

Iowa Senate

I believe I read somewhere where they said Rep. Bruce Braley (D) has done everything he possibly can to lose this election, but that still might not be enough, and I 100% agree.  Despite Iowa’s stance as a swing state, this was a seat that was expected to stay Democratic (beloved Sen. Tom Harkin is retiring in the Hawkeye State) because Iowa seems to like a balance in their senators, but State Sen. Joni Ernst has run a brilliant campaign and has kept this very close in the polls.  Still, Braley has gained in recent weeks and it’s hard to argue that the momentum is slightly on his side as long as he can stay gaffe-proof in the debates (expect Ernst to attack Braley hard on his off-the-cuff attack on farmers earlier in the year that may well cost him the election).  This is a must win for the Democrats if they want to hold the Senate, which is probably why both Clintons and Joe Biden will be in the state over the next week, and Michelle Obama will be out for Braley next month.


With the retirement of Rep. Tom Latham, Democrats have one of their absolute best chances of picking up a seat in Iowa (the district went for President Obama twice despite sending a Republican to the House both times).  Former State Sen. Staci Appel, initially a candidate I was a bit skeptical on, is running an incredible campaign against former House Chief of Staff David Young, and despite a strong push by his former boss Chuck Grassley (the king of Iowa politics), Young has struggled in minimal polling and Appel would probably win if the election were held today.  This race may depend significantly on what happens in the Senate race-if either Braley or Ernst hit a major speed bump, it’s hard to imagine it won’t hurt their candidates in the swingiest of Iowa’s four districts.  It’s worth noting that if either Ernst or Appel win, Iowa would be sending its first woman to Congress (the only other state not to have done so is Mississippi, which won’t happen this cycle).

Former Rep. Bob Dold (R-IL)

This race is definitely a proxy for all of the competitive races in Illinois (not just here, but in the 12th, 13th, and 17th districts as well), but this is the one that has a rematch of two years ago with former Rep. Bob Dold (R), who barely lost to now Rep. Brad Schneider (D) thanks to President Obama performing so well nationally.  The big question for all four of these seats, but particularly here (since I would wager Dold is the better of these two candidates on the ground but the demographics of the district ever so slightly favor Schneider) is what sort of impact Gov. Pat Quinn will have on down-ballot Democrats.  If his race is isolated to the top of the ticket, then Democrats like Schneider will stand a chance.  However, if Democratic turnout is suppressed by people not liking the governor that will hurt candidates like Schneider (as well as other House incumbents) in a big way.

Kansas Governor

If you had said two years ago that the election results political junkies would be most looking forward to on election night would be coming out of Kansas, you would have been told to put down the paint thinner.  Still, though, it’s hard to imagine a place that has a bigger question mark behind it than the Sunflower State.  The gubernatorial election has taken a backseat to the madness of the Senate race, but make no mistake-Gov. Sam Brownback (R) is in deep trouble after a rough first term where he may have gotten too conservative even for ruby red Kansas.  House Minority Leader Paul Davis (D) has run the sort of campaign that stands out in a state where being a Democrat is a huge liability, and has taken the lead, but as we’ve seen in Florida’s gubernatorial race, incumbent Republicans have a solid shot at bouncing back the more time you give the electorate, so don’t write the end of Brownback’s career just yet.  Still, I’d rather be the Democrats than the Republicans right now in this race.

Greg Orman (I-KS)
Kansas Senate

The weirdest election of the cycle?  Absolutely.  Sen. Pat Roberts (R) has run one of the worst campaigns by an incumbent this cycle, and it’s showing in the polls.  Roberts probably would have been embarrassed but fine had Democrat Chad Taylor not dropped out of the race and endorsed Greg Orman, an Independent former Democrat whose affiliation in Washington if he were to win would be a giant question mark (though you have to believe he’s made a deal with the Democrats-at least I would assume so considering Taylor’s exit).  Either way, Kansas is a distraction that the Republicans have to pay for hard now, and the Democrats don’t have to put in a dime (Orman will be running on his own there, likely without any help from the DSCC), so this is a huge hit for the GOP on a map they didn’t want disrupted.  The results of this race will largely depend on A) whether Democrats can get Chad Taylor off of the ballot, which is headed to court in the next couple of weeks and B) whether or not Orman can stand up to the pressures of a real campaign against a very determined national party.

Maine Governor

In a race very similar to not only four years ago in the Pine Tree State, but to the Hawaii gubernatorial election this year, this race will be won or lost based on the support of a liberal third party candidate.  Four years ago Gov. Paul LePage (R) won in a tight race and has since become one of the most controversial major political figures in the country, particularly in lashing out at other politicians and the media.  In a head-to-head battle there’s no doubt that Rep. Mike Michaud (D) would crush the unpopular LePage, but with independent Eliot Cutler running in the double digits (he got second place four years ago to LePage, besting the Democrat), they could well split the vote in a state that has a strong third party contingent.  Michaud is doing his best, though, to shore up Democratic and progressive support, recently having President Bill Clinton stump for him in the state.  It’s also worth noting that if he were to be elected Mike Michaud would become the first openly gay person elected governor of a state.

Michigan Governor

Six months ago you would have had everyone fretting about the Senate, not the gubernatorial race in Michigan, but six months is an eternity in politics and the Wolverine State has seen a bit of a reversal of fortune here.  While none of the once competitive House races appear to be competitive this cycle, it is looking increasingly likely that Rep. Gary Peters (D) will hold the Senate seat for the Democrats after a rocky first start to his campaign.  The governor’s mansion is held by Rick Snyder (R), however, and polling has shown him with a 1-2 point lead over former Rep. Mark Schauer.  This is a tight race, and while the fundamentals of the national electorate tend to favor Snyder, this is a blue state and if Democrats come home to roost he could be in trouble.  This race will largely be dependent on how well Schauer can do with Detroit turnout, as a city that has been ravaged by bankruptcy and water shortages may not want to get out and vote.

Stewart Mills (R-MN)

Rep. Rick Nolan (D) has run a truly awfully campaign, and it’s starting to show.  Honestly, of all of the incumbent Democrats running for reelection in Congress this cycle, Nolan has run in my opinion the worst campaign.  I said this frequently last cycle when the Democrats insisted on backing Nolan over the more modern political stylings of State Sen. Tarryl Clark that he did not seem up to the task of running a 21st Century campaign for high office, but you cannot argue with the DFL leadership (this is why ultra blue Minnesota has had such trouble winning the governorship over the past twenty years-they like to pick the old-timey politicians from the Iron Range rather than from the emerging electorates in the suburbs).  Nolan staged an unlikely comeback after serving in the House in the late 1970’s to win a fourth non-consecutive term, but has not adapted to the 24-hours news culture that mandates more fundraising and sticking to talking points.  As a result, Stewart Mills (who looks more like the love interest in a Hallmark movie than a congressman), is running neck-and-neck with Nolan in one of the last rural districts that the Democrats dominate on a federal level.  Watch this race go down to the wire, but if Nolan wins, it will not be based on turnout from Dayton/Franken and the blue nature of his district, not his abysmal campaign skills.

Nevada Lieutenant Governor

One of only two races that aren’t Governor’s, Senate, or House on this list, the Nevada Lieutenant Governor’s race is probably the most important race that you won’t see called on CNN on Election Night.  The race is seen by many as a proxy between Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) and Gov. Brian Sandoval (R), who may be fighting against each other in the marquee Senate election of 2016.  Their preferred candidates (State Rep. Lucy Flores and State Sen. Mark Hutchinson, respectively) have run decent campaigns, but the candidates at this point almost don’t matter.  Reid knows that if Flores wins, Sandoval won’t run for the Senate since that would risk his gubernatorial seat going to the Democrats, while Sandoval knows that it would stay with the GOP if Hutchinson won.  Adding additional complications to this argument is that Reid may be retiring in 2016, giving Sandoval the frontrunner status (Reid, a man who cares quite a bit about legacy, isn’t going to take well to handing his seat to a Republican and not a hand-chosen successor).  Definitely watch for this one in November.

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

I included Scott Brown’s race here earlier in the year, and Republicans still seem to be pretty excited about Brown’s chances, but polling and his performance on the campaign trail make me believe that race won’t be too close.  This race, however, is going to be brutal and could go a number of different ways.  Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D) and former Rep. Frank Guinta will face off for the third time, and Shea-Porter will get her fifth straight nail-biter.  Polling here is limited, but it’s worth noting that Shea-Porter has outperformed polling every time she’s run for election so that may be a bad indicator.  Guinta is the better campaigner, and probably would be the favorite by a longshot if he were the incumbent, but Shea-Porter has a really good rapport with the grassroots in the district and could pull off yet another upset.  This is a below-the-line race to keep an eye on though, particularly if Shea-Porter is victorious (the dynamics of the federal electorate indicate she shouldn’t be).  Watching this with eagle eyes has to be Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) who is up for reelection in two years and has to be wondering if the Granite State may have become too liberal to elect a Republican to Congress.

New York-1

Rep. Tim Bishop (D) represents one of those districts that is always more competitive in theory than in practice.  Bishop frequently is talked about as a potential target only to see Republicans skip the race and move onto something more promising.  It’s certainly a tantalizing seat, considering that President Obama only won it by a half a percentage point and Bishop won four years ago by less than 500 votes (one of the closest races in the nation).  State Sen. Lee Zeldin is his opponent, and the real question is, if there’s a wave, Tim Bishop becomes the John Spratt/Ike Skelton/Gene Taylor of 2010: a longtime Democrat in a Republican district that finally is taken down.

North Carolina Senate

There has been no better litmus test for the national parties than North Carolina, which has been one of the most expensive and hard fought contests in the country (side note-I get that you are able to be a senator and there is a drive and a prestige that comes as a result of that, but sometimes I wonder why oh why swing district politicians put up with this constant campaigning-it has to be exhausting and extremely disheartening to constantly be berated from both sides of the aisle).  Sen. Kay Hagan (D) and NC House Speaker Thom Tillis (R) are not what you’d call dynamic politicians and this isn’t going to be won based on personality in the way that Mark Pryor and Mary Landrieu are hoping for an upset, but the slight differentiation between the two seems to have benefited Hagan more, particularly in getting out more female voters (this race, like Ann Kirkpatrick’s, has been ground zero for the “War on Women” campaign ads), and in going after Tillis for his cuts to education (unlike Louisiana and Arkansas, this race hasn’t nationalized in quite the same way, which has assuredly assisted Hagan).  This is definitely a true tossup race and could go either way, but again, Hagan’s camp has to be feeling slightly better than Tillis’s at this point.  For the record, this is another must win race for the Democrats, as they need this seat much more than the Republicans do considering their narrowing path to the majority.

State Sen. Nina Turner (D-OH)
Ohio Secretary of State

This is really more of a placeholder for a number of Secretary of State elections in 2016 battleground states that are being waged across the country.  DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz has made getting more Democrats elected Secretary of State (where they will get to decide election laws) a key priority in 2014, and has singled out campaigns in Ohio, Iowa, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada as critical wins for the party.  Ohio is the most interesting of these five, though, not only because it’s a pivotal swing state in a presidential election thanks to its high electoral vote count and perch in election lore as an indicator of who will take an election, but also because of the controversies surrounding the incumbent.  Secretary of State Jon Husted (R) has become the poster boy for Democrats’ distrust of Republicans in charge of elections, wanting to limit early voting hours in a state where African-Americans make up a disproportionate number of those that vote early.  State Sen. Nina Turner (D) has to contend with a lot on her end as well, namely Ed FitzGerald, a scandal-plagued Democrat running for governor who may pull down the rest of the ticket.  Watch for big names to fly into this seemingly small race, and look at this seat (as well as those in the other four swing states) to get an indication of where election fights will be happening two years from now.

Wisconsin Governor

Every election cycle an incumbent or two becomes surprisingly vulnerable even when the logistics of the race shouldn’t make them so.  Gov. Scott Walker (R) won a close race in 2010 and won a slightly less close recall in 2012, and at the time, most Wisconsin Democrats figured they were DOA in 2014.  After all, enthusiasm severely waned in the race and all major Democrats in the state passed on the seat, leaving millionaire Madison School Board Member Mary Burke to win the nomination.

Of course since then the Democratic enthusiasm in the state has hit fever pitch, and Walker is clearly in a lot of trouble.  Ethics problems may seem on the surface what is causing the nail-biter polls (at this point Burke is probably leading by a point or so in aggregate polling), but the reality is that Burke is hammering Walker on his lack of economic growth (the unemployment numbers in Wisconsin outpace most of their neighbors), which is hurting him far more effectively than Tom Barrett’s collective bargaining attacks in the past two elections.  This could be the upset of the cycle, particularly considering that Walker was one of my Top 3 predictions to be the Republican nominee in 2016.

West Virginia-3

We’ll end with longtime Rep. Nick Rahall (D) and his quest for a 20th term in Congress.  This is the most conservative seat in the country where a Democrat is seeking reelection (it went for Mitt Romney by over 30-points), and State Sen. Evan Jenkins has run a very strong campaign trying to nationalize the race.  Rahall’s ads have won plaudits (particularly his one mimicking the famed Pace Picante/New York City ads), but that may not be enough for an incumbent that has long relied on ticket-splitting in a political environment where ticket-splitting is dying.  Rahall’s fate may mimic a number of southern Democrats in the Senate who cannot fight the growing Republicanism in their home states.

And that’s the end of the road for this article-quite a doozy, if I may say so myself.  I’m sure you have opinions on races I included or left out, so share them in the comments-what other races are there that you’re intrigued by and what races on this list don’t seem that interesting?  Click below and speak your peace!

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