When the Midwest votes on November 4, it will have a major – perhaps decisive – impact on the balance of power: both in Congress and in the region’s statehouses. But oddly enough, it won’t tell us much about the national mood or influence any national arguments.
The Midwestern states are the traditional swing states. Except for Republican Indiana and Democratic Illinois, most political races in this region – especially for statewide offices, such as for governorships and US Senate seats – can go either way. For that reason, many pundits will look to these off-year elections for clues to how the region will vote in the presidential ballot two years from now, when the candidate who wins the Midwest will probably win the White House.
Senate seats are at stake in Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan. Voters will elect governors in Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Illinois, and Iowa.
All four Senate seats are held by Democrats and the loss of any of them could help tip control of the Senate to the Republicans. At the moment, Democrats hold the lead in polls in Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan, with Iowa a tossup.
Because of their impact on the balance of power in the Senate, the races will be closely watched nationally. But analysts who expect them races to provide pointers to 2016 will probably be disappointed.
The reason is that, once again, most politics is local. No doubt some voters will be swayed by national or international issues, such as Obamacare or fighting in the Mideast. But the big issues in the Midwest this year seem resolutely local.
Iowa is the perfect example. One of the Senate’s Democratic titans, Tom Harken, is retiring, and the battle to replace is being fought by Jodi Ernst, a Republican member of the state Senate, and Bruce Braley, a three-term member of the U.S. House. Ernst is best known for a TV campaign commercial in which she boasted that “I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm…….so I’ll know how to cut pork” in Washington. For his part, Braley warned that Republican control of the Senate would make Iowa’s other senator, Charles Grassley, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, even though Grassley is “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school.” Braley, himself a farmer, had to apologize to Grassley, but it was a gaffe in Iowa, where most voters may live in cities but still take farmers seriously.
In this exchange of cow pies, the national interest isn’t getting much attention.
Most polls say this election is too close to call. Not so the Iowa gubernatorial race, where the incumbent, Gov. Terry Bransted seems to be safely ahead. Again, no national trends can be spotted here. Bransted is a moderate Republican who is generally admired for leading the state through a period of relative prosperity. In addition, he is one of the few governors who doesn’t seem to want to be president.
Three other gubernatorial contests are more interesting, and considerably tighter. But all three are being fought, at least partially, on the issue of labor rights – an important issue, to be sure, but not at the top of the national agenda.
Most attention is focused on Wisconsin, if only because the Republican governor there, Scott Walker, has led the fight to neuter public service unions and hopes to ride this reputation into the presidency in two years. His Democratic opponent, businesswoman Mary Burke, is talking less about Walker’s restrictions on collective bargaining rights for public service unions, and more on his failure to make good on his promise to add 250,000 jobs to the Wisconsin economy. At the moment, the race seems to be a dead heat.
In Michigan, Govemor Rick Snyder, a Republican, is in a tight race with Mark Schauer, a former US Representative. Snyder got national notice when he signed a bill making Michigan a right-to-work state, but the election seems to be turning more on the overall performance of the state’s economy. Latest polls show Snyder with a persistent but narrowing lead.
In Ohio, the Republican governor, John Kasich, also tried but failed to restrict union collective bargaining rights. But Ohio’s economy has begun to recover, partially because of the natural gas boom, and polls show him running ahead of the Democratic candidate, Ed FitzGerald, the Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) executive, who has run an inept campaign.
The other big gubernatorial race is in Illinois, where Governor Pat Quinn, a Democratic, is challenged by a billionaire private equity manager named Bruce Rauner. Given that Illinois’ deficits and unfunded pension woes show no sign of ending, Quinn would seem to be ripe for defeat, and most polls show him trailing. But Rauner, who has put $9.6 million of his own money into his campaign, has been vague about how he would deal with these budget problems. Quinn is a good campaigner and the race could tighten by November 4.
In the other gubernatorial race, Minnesota’s Democratic Governor Mark Dayton has a solid lead over his Republican foe, Jeff Johnson.
The same is true in Minnesota’s other big race, where Senator Al Franken remains a likely winner for re-election over Republican Mike McFadden.
One of the Senate’s old lions, Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin, seems a good bet to defeat Jim Oberweis, a dairy tycoon and perennial Republican candidate best-known for pushing stricter laws on immigration. Oberweis’ campaign so far has involved mostly radio ads accusing Durbin of various back-door deals: so far, none of this mud seems to have stuck.
In Michigan, another Democratic old lion, Carl Levin, has retired, setting up a race for his seat between US Representative Gary Peters, a Democrat, and Terri Lynn Land, a Republican former secretary of state. Peters has overtaken Land’s earlier lead in polls, but the race is still tight.