Voter turnout during midterm elections tends to fall by roughly 15% compared with presidential elections, a huge drop-off. That’s partly understandable. Midterms don’t resonate with Americans as much as presidential elections because it’s harder to feel that everyone has something at stake, and midterm elections don’t usually offer the ability to cast ballots for something that will clearly effect the whole country.
Except, of course, when they do, as is the case in 2014. Americans across the country will vote for 36 senators, 36 governors and a bunch of policies, but everyone will have their eyes on who wins each race for Senate, as Republicans have a good chance of wresting control of that house of Congress from the Democrats.
Since the G.O.P. already controls the House of Representatives, Republican control of the Senate would make it virtually impossible for President Obama to push any contentious issues through Congress.
Below, we’ve listed some of the bigger reasons why the midterm elections are worth keeping tabs on.
Control of the Senate
U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) Kentucky, center, and Democratic opponent, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, rehearsed before their appearance on a “Kentucky Tonight” television broadcast in Lexington, Kentucky, on Oct. 13.
Image: The Lexington Herald-Leader, Pablo Alcala/Associated Press
Let’s get right back to the Senate.
The main thing to remember here is that Republicans, depending on what poll you look at, have around a 65% chance of having more Senate seats than Democrats after Nov. 4. A 65% chance, of course, doesn’t guarantee that it will happen. But if it does, Republicans would control both houses of Congress, providing them with a slightly larger platform with which to face off against President Barack Obama. Obama would become even more of a lame duck president, unable to pass just about any legislation other than what he can do through executive actions.
And let’s look to the future a bit. A Republican Senate would be better positioned to wipe away regulations on carbon emissions. They could do this by tying government funding with legislation that restricts the power of the Environmental Protection Agency, possibly forcing Obama to approve the restrictions or appear as though he is the cause of yet another potential government shutdown.
President Barack Obama pauses while delivering the commencement address to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point’s Class of 2014, in West Point, N.Y., on May 28.
Image: Susan Walsh/Associated Press
Obama would also probably be able to appoint far fewer justices around the nation, as judges require a simple Senate majority for approval.
Another thing to keep in mind: More Republican senators now means that whoever is elected in November will be around for six years, including the entirety of the next president’s first term.
So, what to watch? If you’ve got only enough time to pay attention to one Senate race other than whatever’s happening in your own state, make it the race in Kansas.
Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, left, and independent candidate Greg Orman walk to the stage before a debate at the Kansas State Fair, on Sept. 6, in Hutchinson, Kansas.
Image: Charlie Riedel/Associated Press
The state has become an unexpected issue for Republicans, like a kid who got straight A’s all through high school and is suddenly about to flunk his freshman year of college. Incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Roberts is favored to lose out—barely—to independent challenger Greg Orman. Now, that might not matter, because Orman has indicated that he would work with whatever party wins a majority, but plenty of Republicans believe that Orman’s natural tendencies lean Democratic, which has made them start to sweat.
If you have a bit more time, take a look at Colorado, Iowa and North Carolina. These are considered “purple” states for their mix of blue and red tendencies, and Democrats probably want to win two of them if they want to put away their fears of Republican Senate control. Right now, though, the races are all tight, and Republicans are ahead in two out of three.
Gubernatorial races take the country’s temperature
Democratic challenger, former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, left, and Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott, answer questions during their second debate, on Oct. 15, in Davie, Florida.
Image: Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press
A governor’s policies, of course, mainly affect only the people in his or her state. But Congress has been notoriously awful at actually passing any legislation over the past forever, meaning governors are among the few politicians in the country with the ability to get anything done.
On top of that, gubernatorial races provide a good gauge of how the country feels toward each political party, and that could be somewhat indicative of what happens in future elections. This year, an estimated 21 states could go Democrat or Republican.
Of those 21, the wildest race has been in Florida (perhaps that’s not so surprising). The race exploded into the national spotlight after a recent debate was dubbed #Fangate, named as such after the whole thing was nearly called off because one candidate brought a little fan to cool himself off. Watch the clip below. It’s worth five minutes.
Fangate, however, is not the only reason the Florida race is whack. It pits incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Scott against Democratic challenger Charlie Crist. Crist actually used to govern Florida himself—as a Republican, just to add to the confusion—before ran unsuccessfully for Senate. Anyway, they’re absolutely deadlocked, even though neither of them is particularly popular.
And if you want to look at a gubernatorial election with potential to resonate beyond 2014, look at the battle for governor of Wisconsin. Current Republican Gov. Scott Walker is talked about as a potential presidential candidate in 2016 or beyond, but he’s facing an unpleasant challenge from Democrat Mary Burke. If he can’t even hold onto his own state, you can count him out for 2016.
Pot, abortion and the minimum wage
In this photo taken Oct. 9, 2014, Adam Eidinger, chairman of the DC Cannabis Campaign, works on posters encouraging people to vote yes on DC Ballot Initiative 71 to legalize small amounts of marijuana for personal use, in Washington.
Image: Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press
Most midterm elections coverage focuses on individual races or politicians, but three other topics that deserve attention are marijuana legalization, abortion issues and raising the minimum wage.
Arkansas, Alaska, Nebraska and South Dakota—all states controlled by Republicans—all have ballot initiatives that would raise the minimum wage in those states and all seem to have a good shot at passing. In fact, every initiative to increase minimum wage has passed since 2002.
In this July 1, 2014, photo, Mike Thrapp, head grower at Sea of Green Farms, a recreational pot grower in Seattle, trims damaged leaves from marijuana plants.
Image: Ted S. Warren/Associated Press
Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C. will vote to legalize marijuana. They could join Colorado and Washington on the side of legalization, making the United States home to four states (and a capital) that allow the use of recreational marijuana after Nov. 4. Floridians will also vote on whether to legalize medical marijuana, which has become a high-profile issue in the state, making that gubernatorial race even more intense.
Colorado and North Dakota both have initiatives up for vote that, if passed, would legally define life as beginning before birth, which would move those states to the right on abortion. The issue has come up in Colorado, where Democrat incumbent Mark Udall has tried to portray his opponent, Republican Rep. Cory Gardner, as right-wing on abortion issues, though Gardner has edged away from supporting measures like the one Coloradans will vote on. Abortion has also become a top voter topic in Tennessee, where the law is more vague, and simply states that a new measure would allow legislators to introduce or change legislation on abortion.
And if you want an example of how ridiculous democracy can be, look no further than the state of Washington. Their midterm elections feature two ballot initiatives of particular interest. One would block all background checks for gun ownership except what’s enforced nationwide. The other would mandate universal background checks for the ownership of any kind of gun. This seems fine, until you realize that both measures could pass, and some voters have said they will vote for each of them.
What? Why would they do that? What does that even mean? No one really knows.
Margaret Wright, left, and Jamal Legare hold up signs supporting Hillary Clinton during the South Carolina Democratic presidential primary in front of a polling place in Hollywood, S.C., on Jan. 26, 2008.
Image: Alice Keeney/Associated Press
Pay attention to who shows up to vote on Nov. 4. That 15-20% drop off from presidential elections isn’t a proportional drop off. The people who don’t show up as much to midterm elections tend to be younger and less white, meaning the electorate in 2014 will be older and whiter, thus favoring Republicans. This is the case just about every midterm election, which is a good bit of information to keep in mind to help frame the election cycle.
And, finally, here’s a fun fact: Various groups have already spent more than $1 billion trying to pass or strike down ballot initiatives this midterm season, so it’s clear that people with serious cash aren’t taking them lightly.
Editors’ note: The original version of this article said that Former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist lost to current Florida Gov. Rick Scott in his reelection campaign. Crist actually declared to run for Senate toward the end of his gubernatorial term, after which Scott was elected governor.
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