Races (Besides the White House) You Should Watch

The folks at Ballotpedia have highlighted 15 federal, state and local races that they say could dictate the future of the country. For full election coverage, go to Governing's Election Center.
by | October 16, 2012

The race for the White House is unquestionably neck and neck. The irreplaceable New York Times FiveThirtyEight blog places President Barack Obama's odds for a second term at 66 percent (down from 80-plus just a month ago). A new Gallup tracking poll gives Mitt Romney a four-point edge among likely voters. The only certainty is that nobody has any idea how things are going to turn out.

With such a nail-biter at the top of the ticket, it's easy to forget that the hundreds of other federal, state and local races next month will also dictate the future of the country. So the good folks at Ballotpedia (a must-read for those who follow politics at every level) and the Lucy Burns Institute have picked the 15 non-presidential races that they'll be watching on Nov. 6.

In the coming weeks, Governing will preview many of the voter initiatives appearing on state ballots. Lou Jacobson has handicapped elections for governors, state legislatures, attorneys general and secretaries of state. But here are the contests catching the eyes of some other political analysts as we head into the final stretch of the 2012 elections.

1. U.S. Senator for Massachusetts: Scott Brown (R, incumbent) vs. Elizabeth Warren (D)

Aside from the presidential race, this is arguably the contest that has earned the most national attention, as Brown's victory in the 2009 runoff to replace the late Sen. Edward Kennedy was such a shocker -- and a Warren victory could go a long way toward ensuring the Democrats keep the Senate. Ballotpedia has averaged the polls conducted so far, and they indicate an absolute tossup: Brown leads 45 percent to 44.8 percent.

2. California tax questions

California voters will decide on three different tax increases as the state continues to grapple with a revenue shortfall and budget crisis. One proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown would increase the state sales tax and raise income taxes on higher-income people. The most recent polls are somewhat contradictory: one shows the question being favored (49.5 percent to 41.7 percent) but another shows it losing (33 percent to 38 percent) with a huge chunk (29 percent) undecided.

Another question would charge income taxes on out-of-state businesses that earn revenue from sales in the state. The most recent poll shows 60 percent of voters are supportive of the measure.

3. Alabama Supreme Court

Roy Moore, who was removed as Chief Justice in 2003 after refusing to follow a federal order to remove the Ten Commandments from the front of his courthouse, is hoping to return to his spot on the bench. He earned 49.5 percent of the vote in the primary this spring. The Republican is running against Democrat Robert Vance, a circuit court judge. Analysts give Moore the advantage for the time being, given Alabama's generally conservative nature.

4. Wisconsin State Senate

Nearly half (16 of 33) of the seats will be up for grabs after one of the most tumultous legislative sessions in recent memory. Democrats are hoping to hold their 17-15 advantage after Gov. Scott Walker beat attempts to recall him earlier this year. Notably, in five districts, a candidate is running unopposed, and in two others, the Democrat incumbent decided not to seek reelection.

5. Governor of Washington: Jay Inslee (D) vs. Robert McKenna (R)

As the authors point out, Democrats currently hold the trifecta in this state (the governor's house plus the two legislative chambers), so a win for Republicans could significantly change the state's political landscape. Health reform has been a hot topic, as McKenna, the current attorney general, joined the lawsuit to overturn the Affordable Care Act against the wishes of current Gov. Chris Gregoire. The most recent polls give Inslee a 47-44 advantage, but 9 percent remain undecided.

6. California's 30th Congressional District

Thanks to redistricting, two incumbents Democrats (Howard Berman and Brad Sherman) are facing off for one remaining seat. Berman should have an advantage -- more than half of the new district is made up of his old one, but Sherman has courted Republicans and independents and holds 45-32 lead in the most recent polls. Ballotpedia astutely notes that the outcome will have no impact on the partisan make-up of the U.S. House -- but it will still be fun to watch.

7. Minnesota Constitutional Amendment 2

As part of the national debate over voter ID laws, Minnesota voters will decide whether to require residents to present identification at the polls. The legislature passed a similar bill earlier this year, but Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed it. The most recent poll shows 51 percent supporting and 46 percent opposed, but support has dropped by seven percent since June.

8. New York's 24th Congressional District

Two years ago, Republican Ann Marie Buerkle was a surprise winner, ekeing out a 0.3 percent victory, but her district has since been redrawn to include more Democrats. Recent polls suggest her race against Dan Maffei, her 2010 challenger, is once again almost even: a September poll put both candidates at 43 percent.

9. Florida Supreme Court Retention

A Republican SuperPAC-led coalition is attempting to remove three justices who issued rulings in support of the Affordable Care Act since 2010. As Ballotpeida notes, no Florida Supreme Court justice has ever been removed from his or her seat. For whatever it's worth, a poll of members of the Florida Bar Association opposed recalling the justices by an average of 90 percent.

10. New Mexico House of Representatives

Control of another state legislature hangs in the balance: Democrats possess a 36-33 majority, but 9 of the 12 retiring incumbents are Democrats. For his money, our Lou Jacobson is giving the Democrats an edge in retaining their majority.

11. West Virginia Attorney General

Democrat Darrell McGraw has held the position since 1992, but he's won by less than a percentage point in his last two elections. Despite that seemingly precarious position, Lou Jacobson still thinks the election leads to the Democrats. A September poll found McGraw leading Republican challenger Patrick Morrisey by more than 20 percent.

12. Michigan Supreme Court

Though technically a non-partisan race, three Democrat-endorsed candidates and three Republican-endorsed canddiates are competing for two seats on the bench. The contest has become fiercely political, as demonstrated by the Detroit Free Press factcheck on a Democrat attack on one of the GOP-supported candidates.

13. Washington Referendum 74

Another recent mainstay at the ballot box has been questions on same-sex marriage. This Washington voter initiative would legalize same-sex marriage. Most recent polls show support above 50 percent.

14. Oregon House of Representatives

The current House is split 30-30, but, as in New Mexico, more Democrats are retiring than Republicans: six out of the eight retirees. Still, Lou Jacobson thinks the race is leaning toward the left for now.

15. President of the Alabama Public Service Commission

It's a rematch of the 2008 race: current president Lucy Baxley (the only Democrat to hold statewide office in Alabama) against Republican Twinkle Cavanaugh, who won a seat on the commission in 2010. Baxley won by a razor-thin margin (50.3 percent to 49.6 percent) the first time around. One of the few polls held, back in July, showed Baxley up 44-42. The commission is responsible for regulating the utility industry in the state.


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