Pay Attention to These Midterm Races

Senate control isn't the only thing that's up for grabs in November's elections. Here are a few races that should illuminate our political future.

Did Sam Brownback go too far in Kansas? 

Photographer: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

Like everyone else who follows politics, I'll be looking at a small number of races on Election Day to get a sense of which party is likely to have control of the Senate next year. But some races have an importance for our political future that goes beyond the question of who runs the Senate.

The Senate race in Arkansas, for example, is not only one of the most competitive contests in the country. It's also a race that will tell us whether Democrats are beginning to have the kind of turnout success in midterm elections that they've had in presidential ones. Black turnout in Arkansas has been low -- which means that if Democrats' efforts to get out the vote are going to succeed, we ought to see the evidence there.

The Kansas governor's race will tell us whether it's possible to go too far with an agenda of tax cuts even in a reliably Republican state. If Republican Governor Sam Brownback -- whose aggressive tax cuts have led to deepening revenue shortfalls and a debt downgrade -- loses, others in his party will conclude that the answer is yes. They will take that lesson especially seriously if Brownback brings down Republican Senator Pat Roberts with him. Controversy over a similar agenda in North Carolina could also keep Thom Tillis, the speaker of the state House of Representatives, from winning a U.S. Senate seat.

Colorado and Iowa have a greater number of competitive races this year than anywhere else. Both states have hard-fought Senate and House campaigns, and Colorado has a tight contest for governor as well. Both states have also swung between the parties in recent presidential contests.

If Democratic incumbent John Hickenlooper loses the Colorado governor's race, it will demonstrate the continuing strength of opposition to gun control. Hickenlooper has been awkwardly trying to distance himself from a controversial law he signed that restricts ammunition sales.

Both states' Senate races, and especially the Colorado one, will also show how effective the Democrats' "war on women" campaign tactic is. Senator Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, is using that theme heavily against his challenger, U.S. Representative Cory Gardner, whose record on birth control and abortion has come in for heavy criticism.

Those Senate races are also important as a sign that Republicans have a chance to gain some ground in swing states. Winning Senate seats in Iowa and Colorado is no guarantee that Republicans can win electoral votes there in two years: The party picked up Senate seats in Illinois, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania in 2010 and lost all three states in the 2012 presidential race. But if Republicans can't do well in those states in a year as good for them as this one is shaping up to be, it bodes poorly for their chances in 2016.

The Colorado Senate race combines the war-on-women theme, a swing state and a rising Hispanic population. For that reason, it strikes me as the most important contest in the country this fall. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    To contact the author on this story:
    Ramesh Ponnuru at

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    Timothy Lavin at

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