Midterm races to watch

Only a handful of seats are truly up for grabs, including two in the West, and they’re being fiercely contested.


At press time, polls gave Republicans a slight edge over Democrats in the battle for control of the U.S. Senate — the main event of this year’s midterm elections. Voters are increasingly dissatisfied with President Obama, whose approval ratings are just over 40 percent, about where George W. Bush’s were in 2006, when Democrats took control of both the House and Senate. In fact, say pundits, Republican chances of taking the Senate might be even greater if the public wasn’t equally disgusted with their do-little-but-bicker-a-lot Congress.

Only a handful of seats are truly up for grabs, including two in the West, and they’re being fiercely contested — by the candidates and the super PACs that run nasty ads on their behalf. Here’s a preview of those races and others of interest to High Country News readers. It’s not all-encompassing, but does provide a snapshot of this season’s political mood and defining trends.



Gov. John Hickenlooper, D | Bob Beauprez, R

In 2010, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper campaigned for governor as a post-partisan politician who would create jobs, balance the budget and give everyone a reason to like him. Instead, “guns, gays and grass” — divisive social issues, all — defined his first two years in office, an aide told The New Yorker magazine last year. Guns are still at the forefront this year, along with natural gas. After the 2012 mass shooting at a suburban theater, Hickenlooper supported new gun controls that soured his previously friendly relationship with the NRA and its supporters and got two state legislators booted from office. Hickenlooper has similarly alienated liberals with his enthusiastic support for oil and gas drilling and opposition to local efforts to strictly regulate or ban it. And this time, the GOP has found a viable, mostly gaffe-free candidate to challenge him: Polls now show Hickenlooper in a dead heat with Republican Bob Beauprez.



Sen. Mark Udall, D | Cory Gardner, R

President Obama and his signature health-care reforms are both unpopular with many Colorado voters. They’ve helped make Sen. Mark Udall vulnerable and catapulted this race to national prominence, since its outcome could help determine which party controls the U.S. Senate. Conservationists view the Senate’s Democratic majority as a firewall against the anti-environmental bills passed in the House. So even though environmental concerns haven’t dominated the debate between Udall and challenger Cory Gardner (abortion, birth control and Obama’s failings are more popular topics), keeping Udall in office is a top priority for environmentalists. The super PAC bankrolled by billionaire climate hawk Tom Steyer has so far spent around the same amount as Karl Rove’s conservative group Crossroads GPS.



Amanda Curtis, D | Steve Daines, R

The seat formerly occupied by Democrat Max Baucus is almost certain to go to Steve Daines. The Democrats had a weak candidate from the get-go in John Walsh, who was appointed to the seat when Baucus left mid-term. But Walsh flamed out when he got mired in an academic plagiarism scandal and withdrew from the race in early August. Democrats then chose a young, little-known state legislator named Amanda Curtis, whose politics, working-class background, and loyalty to the little guys have drawn comparisons to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. No one expects Curtis to win this time, but her campaign could help pave the way for a future run for higher office. Businessman and first-term Congressman Daines’s own record is limited, but he supports the Keystone XL pipeline, opposes Obamacare, and received a 4 percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters.



Sen. Mark Begich, D | Dan Sullivan, R

Sen. Mark Begich barely beat veteran Sen. Ted Stevens after Stevens was convicted of corruption days before the 2008 election. (The conviction was later set aside.) Republicans are optimistic about reclaiming the seat. Begich enjoys backing from the fishing industry and has supported increased drilling in the Arctic. But political reporter Amanda Coyne says there’s still some resentment in the state that it lost a powerhouse in Stevens and got, well, a Democrat instead. Begich is a skilled, folksy campaigner, but he supported Obamacare and usually votes with his party, and Alaska is a deeply red state. Lawyer Dan Sullivan is Alaska’s former natural resource commissioner and attorney general, who fought the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases. Sullivan is campaigning against the Obama administration’s policies and “federal overreach,” and perhaps most importantly, as a Republican.



Gov. Sean Parnell, R | Bill Walker, I

Republican-turned-Independent Bill Walker, with Democrat and Alaska Native Byron Mallott as his lieutenant, is challenging Gov. Sean Parnell in a “unity ticket.” Walker has a shot at unseating Parnell, who though not unpopular, is not deeply beloved. Alaska, once flush with budget surpluses, has had to dip into its savings in recent years, thanks to declining oil production and revenues. Parnell supported controversial tax cuts passed in 2013 for oil producers, on the theory they’d boost production, and has been accused in the past of being too cozy with industry. Walker opposed the cuts, but in August, Alaskans voted to keep them. Walker promises a more inclusive, transparent governing style. Parnell, meanwhile, is promoting his efforts to build a long-desired natural gas pipeline from the North Slope.  



Clint Didier, R | Dan Newhouse, R

Longtime Western Congressman Doc Hastings is retiring. He was first elected to represent central Washington in Congress in 1994, the “Contract with America” election. Hastings championed the cleanup of hazardous waste at the Hanford Nuclear Site, delivering billions of federal dollars to his district. As chair of the Natural Resources Committee, he vexed environmentalists, pushing for increased industrial development of public lands, and opposing new wilderness and endangered species protections. Washington’s primary system advances the top two vote getters regardless of party, and this year, only Republicans will compete for Hastings’ seat. Dan Newhouse, former director of the state Department of Agriculture, is favored over Tea Partier Clint Didier. Newhouse has promised to watch out for ag and water interests, oppose dam removal and reform the Endangered Species Act. Sarah Palin endorsed Didier, while Hastings and the NRA endorsed Newhouse. 



Ted Lieu, D | Elan Carr, R

Rep. Henry Waxman, a leading voice for climate policy, has represented Southern California in Congress since 1975. Despite his unabashed liberalism, Waxman is widely respected for his ability to work across the aisle and pass remarkable amounts of legislation. At this point, none of his possible successors seem to have Waxman’s dynamic force. State Sen. Ted Lieu, the favorite in the Democratic district, says climate change will be a high priority; he supports gay marriage and lowering student loan interest rates, and opposes government mining of citizens’ data. Republican Elan Carr, an L.A. County deputy district attorney, is new to politics — a moderate who supports immigration reforms and says he is both pro-business and pro-environment.



Rep. Ron Barber D | Martha McSally, R

Rob Barber, an aide to former Rep. Gabby Giffords, was also injured when the congresswoman was shot in Tucson in 2011. In 2012, Barber narrowly defeated Republican Martha McSally to keep Giffords’ former seat in Democratic hands. This year’s rematch is one of a few races that Giffords’ new super PAC, which seeks to elect pro-gun-reform candidates, is pumping money into. McSally says she favors prohibiting stalkers from owning guns, but opposes most gun control measures. In his first term, Barber made border security, not gun control, his top priority, but he does support expanded background checks. 



Gary Varvel Editorial Cartoon used with the permission of Gary Varvel and Creators Syndicate. All rights reserved.

Year by year, environmentalists are getting deeper into the super PAC game. In 2014, environmental interests will spend more than ever on certain races, led by billionaire Tom Steyer’s group, NextGen Climate Action, whose tab topped $14 million at press time. Steyer has said he’ll spend up to $50 million of his own money this election. The League of Conservation Voters also plans to break records, spending $25 million. In addition to focusing on key U.S. Senate races that could help Democrats maintain a majority, the groups are getting involved in a handful of state-level races in Washington and Oregon. With Congress mired in constant gridlock, the states are increasingly important incubators for climate policy. League spokesman Jeff Gohringer says the group hopes to give Northwest governors reliably pro-environment legislative majorities, to help pass, for instance, the carbon-cutting plan Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is supposed to propose in 2015.

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