Note: this article introduces five related articles: "Around the West, the hot races to watch," "Montanans may take back their dams," "New Mexico Green lose steam," "Utahns could kill radioactive dump," and "State's big nuke waste fight takes a hit."

This November will be an "off-year" election, but reject the implication that nothing rides on it.

There are plenty of crucial races in the West, where politics often resemble the natural environment, extreme as a flash flood or a drought, prickly as a nest of scorpions.

The main reason things will be interesting? The voting will be less predictable.

Not long ago, the Republican Party seemed to be in the saddle almost everywhere in the region.

But the Democrats have taken the West Coast; they now hold the governorships and the great majority of congressional seats in Washington, Oregon and California. Even in the Interior West, Democrats hold nearly one-third of the congressional seats - and they'll likely win more.

From South Dakota to California, Westerners will help swing the nation. With Republicans needing a gain of just one seat to run the Senate, and Democrats needing just six more seats to run the House, every congressional race counts.