Pundits have taken to calling the 2014 midterms a “Seinfeld election” — that is, an election about nothing. That’s only partially true: Almost every race in the country is about how unpopular President Barack Obama has become in the sixth year of his presidency, and, as usual, there is no shortage of local issues shaping each campaign.
But there’s a kernel of truth to this year’s conventional wisdom as well. Candidates aren’t battling about big ideas the way they did in, say, 1994, when Newt Gingrich’s GOP swept into Washington promising bedrock conservative reform. And voters are more apathetic than ever.
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So why should a normal, sane human being care what happens on Nov. 4?
Because every election — even a Seinfeld election — matters. If Republicans flip the six seats they need to win control of the U.S. Senate for the first time since 2007 — which they have a roughly 70 percent chance of doing — it will shape the final two years of Obama’s presidency in some pretty important ways. There could be more investigations — and even more gridlock.
If Democrats gain a few governorships — another distinct possibility — the Medicaid expansion mandated by Obama’s Affordable Care Act might spread to states that had previously blocked it, delivering health insurance to millions of uninsured Americans (and perhaps some unintended fiscal consequences).
And even though House districts across the country have been drawn in wacky ways that all but guarantee Republicans will retain their majority, several races have attracted the national spotlight this year: some because they feature famous — or notorious — candidates; others because they’re emblematic of the deeper battles over policy and culture that Democrats and Republicans are waging nationwide. Meanwhile, a larger GOP caucus — perhaps the largest since 1928 — will make it even harder for House Speaker John Boehner to balance the competing demands of tea partyers who want to stick it to Obama and a public that just wants Congress to legislate.
All in all, this is the perfect moment to tune in to politics, even if you’ve spent the last few months tuning out. The good news is that there’s no need to monitor all 507 House, Senate and gubernatorial contests; we’ve boiled the 2014 midterms down to the 20 races that tell you everything you need to know. Your essential guide to Election Day:
North Carolina: The race between one-term incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan and Republican state House Speaker Thom Tillis is on track to be the most expensive Senate contest in U.S. history. The projected final price tag? In excess of $100 million. But the cost in the Tar Heel State hasn’t merely been financial; in a cycle defined by bitterness, the Hagan-Tillis campaign stands out as one of the most negative in the nation. As a Wake County third-grader recently wrote to both candidates, “Seeing the ads on TV makes me sad. I don’t want to vote.” A Libertarian candidate, Durham pizza deliverer Sean Haugh, could capture up to 5 percent of the vote — although it’s not clear whether he’ll cut into Tillis’ support or turn out voters who might otherwise have stayed home. Polls close at 7:30 p.m. EST.
Kentucky: Perhaps no contest has been more obsessed over by national Democratic Party leaders than the race to unseat Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. For nearly six years, Democrats have been dreaming about eliminating the powerful GOP boss who said in 2009 that his No. 1 priority was defeating the president. They enlisted Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky’s 35-year-old Democratic secretary of state, to vie for the job, and she built exactly the sort of large national fundraising base needed to defeat one of Congress’ most adept and calculating operators. But as a novice on the stump in a Republican-friendly state, that may not be enough; recent polling shows McConnell pulling away. Polls close at 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. EST, as the state is split between two time zones.
Colorado: Republicans and Democrats both have a lot riding on the results of this hotly contested battleground. If Republican Cory Gardner, one of the cycle’s best retail politicians, can’t win in a purple state, the GOP may have to start figuring out how to get a more socially moderate candidate past the party’s conservative primary base there. Meanwhile, a struggling Mark Udall campaign will test the strength of the Democratic ground game, which has been held in high esteem ever since Michael Bennet, now the chairman of the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, pulled out an unexpected victory in Colorado in 2010. Udall is running on the Bennet blueprint, right down to the obsessive focus on reproductive rights. The only difference? Size. Udall’s team says it’s hired twice as many field staffers as Bennet did in 2010. Polls close at 9 p.m. EST.
Louisiana: Three-term incumbent Mary Landrieu is the most talented Democratic candidate of 2014. Yet the seasoned Democrat also faces one of the toughest roads to re-election — including a likely December runoff if neither she nor Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy receives 50 percent of the vote, thanks to the presence of a conservative third candidate in the race, Republican Rob Maness. Landrieu has separated herself from Obama on energy issues — a smart move for an Energy Committee chairwoman from a state that relies heavily on drilling — but she is also one of the few Democrats who refused to run against the Obamacare law for which she voted. Cassidy’s strategy seems to be to ride an anti-Obama wave into the runoff and then to the Senate. He did not show up to a debate that was set to be televised less than a week before Election Day. Polls close at 9 p.m. EST.
Georgia: The daughter of longtime Peach State Sen. Sam Nunn, Michelle Nunn is banking on her influential family name to inoculate her from an unpopular Democratic president. For many months, Nunn’s quiet, well-run campaign made her the talk of the Democratic operative class (even as Beltway pundits focused elsewhere). Now she’s in a heated battle with Republican businessman David Perdue, whose campaign could be characterized as less than disciplined — at best. If neither Nunn nor Perdue receives more than 50 percent of the vote on Nov. 4 — a possible scenario given the presence of a Libertarian third candidate in the race, Amanda Swafford — a runoff between the two will be held Jan. 6. Polls close at 7 p.m. EST.
Alaska: There's reason to believe that the ground game is going to matter more in this year's Alaska Senate contest between Democratic incumbent Mark Begich and Republican challenger Dan Sullivan than it has mattered in pretty much any other major race in recent memory. For one thing, the state is tiny, populationwise; elections are rarely decided by more than a few thousand votes. Meanwhile, the polls are all over the place: Most show Sullivan ahead, but a recent flurry of surveys give Begich a lead as large as 10 percentage points. Analysts think the differences may result from who pollsters are calling: older landline users, who trend Republican, or more remote Democratic types, who tend to prefer wireless devices. Begich has built the most impressive ground game in the country, and he’s banking on turning out the cellphone crowd in record numbers on Nov. 4. Polls close at midnight and 1 a.m. EST in different parts of the state.
New Hampshire: Granite State Republicans did not believe they had a chance to defeat incumbent Democrat Jeanne Shaheen unless Scott Brown — a former senator who served less than one full term in Massachusetts — threw his proverbial hat into the ring. For months, the will-he-or-won’t-he mystery kept Brown in the national conversation, and his eventual entrance into the race made him an instant contender. But the twin challenges of being seen as a carpetbagger and having to transform from a moderate Massachusetts Republican into a more right-wing New Hampshire conservative have prevented Brown from overtaking Shaheen, a former New Hampshire governor, in the polls — even in the face of strong anti-Obama headwinds. If Democrats want to preserve their majority in the Senate, they need to hold onto this seat. Polls close at various times depending on municipality, but most close at approximately 7 p.m. EST.
Kansas: Republican Pat Roberts is the kind of politician who’s never had trouble getting re-elected. A 16-year veteran of the House and 18-year veteran of the Senate, Roberts has served in a variety of leadership roles, and he won his three previous Senate races with at least 60 percent of the vote. But questions over Roberts’ residency and a general anti-incumbent mood have imperiled this old Washington hand. After surviving a primary challenge, he now finds himself in a close race against an independent candidate, entrepreneur Greg Orman, whose electoral chances greatly improved in September when a third candidate, Democrat Chad Taylor, dropped out. In another blow to Roberts, the state Supreme Court later ruled that Taylor’s name would not have to appear on the ballot. Republicans were hoping that Orman would have to split votes with a nonexistent candidate, but that’s no longer the case. Polls close at 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. EST, as the state is divided between two time zones.
Iowa: Republican Joni Ernst has opened up a late lead against Democrat Rep. Bruce Braley, with a recent Des Moines Register poll showing her up 7 points in the election’s closing days. If Ernst captures the seat of retiring longtime Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, it would be a huge blow to Democrats. Harkin is the outgoing chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee; Ernst does not believe there should be a Department of Education. Ernst has proved herself an adept general election candidate, gaining serious momentum in the final months of the race despite staking out fringe conservative positions in the GOP primary on obscure issues such as Agenda 21. Braley’s campaign has been marred by missteps, from comments that offended farmers to first lady Michelle Obama repeatedly calling him “Bruce Bailey” at a campaign rally. Polls close at 10 p.m. EST.
Arkansas: Two-term Democratic incumbent Mark Pryor could be the second Democratic senator from Arkansas to lose in the past four years, joining Blanche Lincoln, who was swept out of office in 2010 after both she and Pryor voted for Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Pryor, the son of a former U.S. senator and governor, was one of the first Democrats this cycle to commit to running on the merits of the health care law. Rural areas in the Razorback State have seen some of the nation’s largest increases in newly insured residents, even as the law continues to be unpopular nationwide. But Republican Rep. Tom Cotton has been leading by a significant margin — anywhere from 7 to 13 points — in recent polls. Former President Bill Clinton returned to his home state of Arkansas over the election’s final weekend to try to make a dent in that lead, but it might not be enough. Polls close at 8:30 p.m. EST.
Colorado: On paper, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper should have been a sure bet to win re-election this year. For most of his political career — first as Denver mayor, then as the Centennial State’s chief executive — he’s proved to be a popular figure with voters. Colorado’s job growth is among the strongest in the nation. And Hickenlooper’s opponent, former Republican Rep. Bob Beauprez, lost his last gubernatorial bid by nearly 17 percentage points. But fast-changing Colorado is experiencing a bit of an identity crisis, and as Hickenlooper has been pushed to the left on issue after issue — capital punishment, gay marriage, gun control — the race has become a referendum on which Colorado Colorado wants to be: Beauprez’s older, rural, more conservative state, or Hickenlooper’s younger, urban, more progressive alternative. Hickenlooper has a slim edge in the latest polls, but the contest is still too close to call. Polls close at 9 p.m. EST.
Connecticut: If you’re a Democratic governor running for re-election in a deep blue state, you know you’re in trouble when the party dispatches both President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama to stump for you in the homestretch. That’s exactly the predicament Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy finds himself in today. Four years ago, Malloy defeated Republican Tom Foley, a former U.S. ambassador to Ireland, by a mere 6,400 votes; the race was still undecided the day after the election. Now Foley is back for a rematch, and if anything, the contest is closer — and nastier. Foley has been attacking Malloy’s $1.5 billion tax hike and “anti-business” policies; Malloy has been tarring Foley as a heartless fat cat who outsourced jobs while he was in charge of NTC Group, a private investment firm. A recent study found that nearly 80 percent of Malloy and Foley’s TV ads have been negative — the highest rate in the nation. Connecticut voters, meanwhile, don’t know what to think: the last four public polls have shown a dead heat. Polls close at 8 p.m. EST.
Florida: The award for Weirdest Gubernatorial Race of 2014 goes to the Sunshine State — no contest. In one corner is Rick Scott, a former hospital executive with a Mr. Clean haircut who won in 2010 as a tea party reformer, then promptly recast himself as a mainstream moderate when polls showed his approval rating plummeting into Richard Nixon territory; in the other corner is Charlie Crist, the perma-tanned former Florida governor who became an independent during his ill-fated Senate bid in 2010 and then a Democrat when he decided he wanted to try for governor again in 2014. Scott has been campaigning on Florida’s recent run of good economic headlines; Crist has been saying — with reason — that the news isn’t good enough. Usually, an incumbent as unpopular as Scott would be doomed. But nobody in Florida really likes the opportunistic Crist, either. Even so, the latest polls make him the slight favorite. Polls close at 7 p.m. EST.
Georgia: Growing black and Latino populations were supposed to make this red state competitive — eventually. But thanks to solid Democratic candidates such as Jason Carter, the 39-year-old grandson of former Georgia governor and U.S. President Jimmy Carter who is challenging incumbent GOP Gov. Nathan Deal, Peach State Republicans have been forced to play defense a few cycles earlier than expected. By hammering Deal over his ethics troubles and his refusal to expand Medicaid to an estimated 650,000 Georgians, Carter is hoping to push African-American turnout past 30 percent and capture more than the 42 percent vote share that Democrats typically have to settle for. If he can prevent Deal from topping 50 percent on Nov. 4 — and the latest polls suggest he will — then the race will go to a runoff. Polls close at 7 p.m. EST.
Kansas: No governor entered office in 2010 more confident in his ability to reshape his state than the ultraconservative former Sen. Sam Brownback. "My focus is to create a red-state model that allows the Republican ticket to say, 'See, we've got a different way, and it works,'" said Brownback. "We'll have a real, live experiment." And no governor has been burned more badly by the results of his reforms. In Kansas, Brownback eliminated the top income tax bracket, reduced the others and ended taxes on certain kinds of small-business income. He instituted strict new welfare and food-stamp requirements. He rejected federal funding for Medicaid, eliminated thousands of state jobs and cut money for education. Now, as Election Day approaches, Kansas’ budget is hemorrhaging revenue. Both Moody's and S&P have downgraded the state's bond rating. And since Brownback's cuts took effect, job growth in Kansas has lagged behind the national level and all but one of its neighboring states. As a result, more than 100 current and former Republican elected officials have endorsed Brownback’s Democratic opponent, state Rep. Paul Davis, who leads in the latest polls. Polls close at 8 and 9 p.m. EST, as the state is divided between two time zones.
Wisconsin: For years now, the conventional wisdom in Washington has been that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the tea party favorite elected in 2010, would make a strong GOP presidential nominee in 2016. But there’s only one problem: He has to get re-elected in the Badger State first. His battle against Madison School Board member and former Trek executive Mary Burke has proved to be anything but a cakewalk. Walker’s famous 2011 "budget repair bill" eliminated collective bargaining rights for public employees, reduced Medicaid spending by $500 million and removed more than $1 billion from the state's education coffers, and critics say Walker’s policies are part of the reason Wisconsin is now facing a new $1.8 billion deficit in the 2015-17 budget. A 2012 recall effort failed, but Wisconsin’s centrists still aren’t sold on Walker; Burke — who supports marijuana legalization, same-sex marriage and Medicaid expansion — has been running even with the governor in most October polls. Not that Burke has been the best candidate, either: In September she axed a consultant for plagiarizing material for her jobs plan, and she has spent the final days of the campaign arguing that she wasn’t fired two decades ago by Trek — a company founded by her father and run by her brother. Polls close at 9 p.m. EST.
HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
Utah 4: Mia Love is trying for the second time to become the first black woman ever elected to Congress as a Republican. Love, who lost to Democrat Jim Matheson in 2012 by less than half a percentage point, had been heavily favored to win the seat. But polling in the final week of the election showed the 38-year-old Mormon trailing Democrat Doug Owens by a small margin. Since the 2012 election, Republicans have invested heavily in Love as part of their effort to recruit more female candidates and to integrate more women, once elected, into the party’s lawmaking and messaging process. Polls close at 10 p.m. EST.
New York 11: Republican Michael Grimm’s fight to keep his Staten Island-based seat might be the most bizarre House bid of all. In April, Grimm was indicted by the feds on 20 counts of fraud, perjury and obstruction — and yet he leads his Democratic opponent in the latest polls. Jon Stewart’s script wrote itself, and the New York Daily News endorsement of him over Domenic Recchia is one for the ages. Polls close at 9 p.m. EST.
North Carolina 2: Former "American Idol" star Clay Aiken is one of the few challengers this year with high name recognition — not just in central North Carolina but nationwide. Still, the Democrat faces an uphill battle against incumbent Republican Renee Ellmers, who occupies a district that was redrawn in 2010 to make the seat safer for the GOP. Most of the initial interest in Aiken’s candidacy centered on his celebrity, but the consensus is that he’s actually run a serious campaign. Nonetheless, the latest polling suggests that Aiken will finish in second place on Election Day — just like he did on "American Idol." Polls close at 7:30 p.m. EST.
Arizona 2: In 2012, former Gabby Giffords staffer Ron Barber ran for his old boss’ seat after he was injured in the Tucson shooting rampage that left the congresswoman incapacitated. The seat has long been a tossup: Republican Martha McSally, a retired Air Force colonel, lost to Barber in 2012 by less than 1 percentage point, and now the rivals are facing off again on the 2014 ballot. The rematch recently garnered national attention when Giffords' pro-gun-control group ran a controversial ad blasting McSally for refusing to close the loophole that might have prevented a 19-year-old man from shooting and killing his ex-girlfriend. Polls close at 9 p.m. EST.