The big question of the 2014 midterm elections -- other than, "Eric Cantor lost?!" -- is which party will emerge with control of the U.S. Senate. A number of Western states will host Senate races this year – Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Alaska – but only three will be hotly contested, and only those will figure into the national partisan power struggle. Those races are for seats currently occupied by Democrats in Colorado, Montana and Alaska. Colorado's Mark Udall is the most likely to hold on, while in Montana and Alaska, incumbents John Walsh and Mark Begich are extremely vulnerable.
Republicans need to pick off six sitting Democrats to take a majority in the Senate. Only seven Democrats seem vulnerable, and to varying degrees, making races like those in Montana and Alaska – where Republicans have a good shot at victory – crucial to both parties.
Here's a closer look at the candidates facing off in these three states and some of the more intriguing aspects of their campaigns:
First-term Sen. Mark Udall is being challenged by Republican Rep. Cory Gardner, who both establishment and Tea Party conservatives in Colorado seem to be united behind. Climate change and energy look like they'll figure big in this race, and the obligatory attacks are already being lobbed at Udall from outside groups for his support of Obamacare. Gardner is going after Udall for not taking a position on attempts by towns across Colorado to ban fracking within their limits, which Gardner sees as economic drains. The issue is a thorny one for Udall, who risks being labeled a job-killing liberal if he supports the bans, and alienating lefty enclaves like Boulder if he opposes them.
Another sign that the politics of energy are less clearcut in Colorado than in fossil fuel meccas like Wyoming, is Udall's reaction to the carbon rules for existing power plants recently announced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The rules, announced just as campaigns were getting revved up, were widely expected to be a political burden for vulnerable Democrats. Udall, however, reacted to the announcement by touting his support for the EPA's plan. Colorado has already transitioned many of its big coal plants to natural gas, as required by a law that Gardner supported when he was in the state legislature. (Though Gardner has also expressed skepticism about manmade climate change.)