In Washington, the focus is on the Senate: Who will control it after November’s elections? In the House, Republicans hope to extend their margin by emphasizing the health care overhaul’s rocky start, while Democrats prefer to focus on the improving economy. And states continue to dominate the policy front as Washington remains gridlocked. That means the landscape for gubernatorial elections, usually decided by a blend of national and state-specific issues, is even more volatile. As early voting begins next week, here’s a look at key races:
Florida: In what could be the most expensive governor’s race in the nation, Republican Gov. Rick Scott is trailing former Gov. Charlie Crist in polls. Scott is a former businessman who will pour his vast personal wealth into his campaign. But Crist is still a major player in Florida politics and will likely be able to raise the money necessary to tackle Scott. But as a GOP politician who ran for Senate in 2010 as an independent and then made the full switch to the Democratic Party, Crist has his fair share of political baggage, and the GOP won’t let voters forget it.
Pennsylvania: Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, who has approval ratings in the 20s and low 30s, tops Democrats’ target list. He was among a new crop of Republican governors elected across the industrial heartland in 2010. The Democratic primary could be just as interesting. The crowded field — no fewer than eight candidates have entered the field — includes businessman Tom Wolf, who has pledged to spend $10 million on the race.
Texas: Republican Gov. Rick Perry is retiring, setting up one of the most interesting contests of the year. State Sen. Wendy Davis, a rising Democratic superstar after filibustering the state’s abortion restrictions, is expected to be better funded than many Texas Democrats in the past. Still, she faces an uphill challenge. The GOP candidate, Attorney General Greg Abbott, has almost $30 million in the bank.
Wisconsin: Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican who might have 2016 aspirations, survived a recall attempt less than two years ago. Democrats say challenger Mary Burke, a former Trek Bicycle exec, could make it competitive by revisiting the “Republican war on women” theme.
Other heartland states — Illinois, Ohio, Michigan: An anemic economy and a pension debt crisis have made Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois vulnerable. He could be in for a tough fight against any GOP nominee. In Michigan, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder could face Democratic former Rep. Mark Schauer, who would try to capitalize on the incumbent’s record on guns and abortion. In Ohio, Republican Gov. John Kasich took on public employee unions in 2011 but upset Tea Party conservatives by accepting federal dollars to expand Medicaid. Democratic challenger Ed FitzGerald is making his first run at statewide office.
Florida 13: What happens here during a special election on March 11 is seen as a possible indicator of how the midterm elections could break. Republican first-time candidate David Jolly and Democrat Alex Sink are vying to fill the seat held for 43 years by Republican Bill Young, who died in October. Jolly worked for Young in Washington; Sink narrowly lost the governor’s race to Rick Scott in 2010. A Sink win would be interpreted as an indication that Democrats can make inroads in other swing districts.
Arizona 2: Democratic Rep. Ron Barber is seeking re-election in a likely rerun of his 2012 race against retired Air Force Col. Martha McSally, who is favored to win the Aug. 26 primary. Barber, an aide to former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, won by fewer than 2,500 votes in their first faceoff and Republicans hope McSally is the solution to their gender gap: A woman warrior with a compelling personal story. Barber, who was wounded in the attack on Giffords, carries her mantle but casts himself as someone with an independent streak.
Massachusetts 6: Democrat John Tierney took office in 1997 but almost lost in 2012 after his wife’s conviction for her role in her brother’s illegal gambling venture. He faces challengers in the Sept. 9 primary, including Seth Moulton, a Marine who served four tours in Iraq. The winner could face Republican Richard Tisei, a former state legislator who lost a close race to Tierney in 2012 and would be the first openly gay Republican elected to Congress. The state’s Republican Party hasn’t won a U.S. House race since 2002.
California 10: Republican Rep. Jeff Denham’s district includes parts of the San Joaquin Valley, a farming hub, and more than 40 percent of its residents are Latino. So his re-election could hinge on whether Congress overhauls immigration policies. Denham was one of three House Republicans who co-sponsored the House version of a bipartisan immigration bill passed by the Senate in June. His Democratic challenger is bee farmer Michael Eggman, who criticizes Denham’s vote against extending benefits for the long-term unemployed.
Utah 4: Republican Mia Love, a black Mormon and Tea Party favorite, lost in 2012 but is the front-runner after incumbent Democrat Jim Matheson announced he’ll retire. This seat is a likely GOP pickup, and Love would be the House’s first black female Republican. She must survive an April 26 GOP convention to advance to the June 24 primary.
Kentucky: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is one of Washington’s most powerful Republicans, so the fact that he has a Tea Party challenger, businessman Matt Bevin, in the May 20 primary makes this race compelling. Bevin is blasting McConnell’s vote to advance a bill raising the national debt ceiling; in an ad, he says McConnell “betrayed conservatives.” The winner faces Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, who has already campaigned with former President Bill Clinton.
Louisiana: Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu could be vulnerable in her bid for a fourth term in this increasingly red state. Her challenge is to collect enough support from independents and Republicans. Her biggest obstacle might be her unapologetic vote for President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. She could benefit from her promotion to chairwoman of the committee that oversees energy policies that affect the state’s gas and oil industry.
Alaska: Democratic Sen. Mark Begich is trying to distance himself from his party in a state with strong Republican leanings, calling himself “as independent as Alaska.” Polls show him leading in matchups with former Attorney General Dan Sullivan, the GOP favorite who has raised a formidable campaign war chest, and lawyer Joe Miller, the 2010 GOP nominee. Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell also is seeking the Repubican nomination in the Aug. 19 primary.
Georgia: This seat was left open by the retirement of Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss. Democrats see an opening for Michelle Nunn, a newcomer with a political pedigree: She’s the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn. The crowded field for the May 20 GOP primary includes three members of Congress and a former Georgia secretary of state. A February poll found a five-way GOP tie. Handicappers see this race, once thought to be a Republican sure thing, as one of Democrats’ few opportunities to pick up a Senate seat.
Nebraska: There’s a split in the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party between Ben Sasse, a university president, and former state treasurer Shane Osborn. The May 13 primary winner will be favored to replace retiring GOP Sen. Mike Johanns.
The wild cards: Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin’s retirement in Iowa gives Republicans a shot at capturing the seat; big Republican primary field. And the retirements of Democratic incumbents Max Baucus of Montana, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Tim Johnson of South Dakota in three red states also could be good news for Republican candidates.