The political world finally noticed Georgia this year, and if there’s a Senate runoff here with control of that body at stake, the political world may be headquartered here for a month-plus. But today, with as much as there is going on locally, some contests outside Georgia remain well worth our attention. Here’s my list, in order of priority for Republicans in my view. Warning: You will read a heavy dose of 2016 implications; get used to it, because starting tomorrow, 2016 will be lurking beneath every political story worthy of national attention.
1. WISCONSIN GOVERNOR: The incumbent, Scott Walker, is the only serious potential 2016 presidential candidate from either party who is on the ballot today. (You might add Paul Ryan to that list, although he’s in no danger of losing today and might not run for president in 2016.) Walker, who survived a recall election during his first term, is clinging to a narrow but perhaps widening lead in the polls. If he wins, he’s a two-term governor in a swing state with solid policy achievements under his belt. If he loses to Democrat Mary Burke, for the purposes of 2016 he’s a has-been. More important than his personal ambitions, though, from the GOP’s perspective, is how a loss for Walker would be spun. The biggest thing people know about his first term is that he limited collective bargaining for public-sector unions and made other changes for their employees, such as requiring them to contribute more to their pensions and health insurance. If he loses, the result may be cast as a repudiation of those changes, even though he already survived the recall attempt directly related to them. That could have an effect on the policy debate within the GOP primary as it concerns reforming the federal bureaucracy.
2. COLORADO SENATE: If the GOP is going to take control of the Senate, it needs to win a few close races in purple states. I could put states like Iowa or New Hampshire here, but I’ll go with Colorado for a few reasons. First, it’s an example where the GOP recruited a good candidate (Cory Gardner) and has built a small but steady lead over an incumbent Democrat (Mark Udall). Second, it’s a race where the Democrat’s rhetoric about the “war on women” appears to have failed utterly — a marked contrast with 2012, when two Republicans lost winnable states because of their comments about rape and abortion. Third, from the 2016 perspective, even though Iowa and New Hampshire are synonymous with presidential primaries, Colorado has almost as many electoral votes as the two of them combined. The GOP presidential nominee will almost have to win Colorado to have a chance of winning; the party wants to prove it can win there starting this year. For that last reason, the also-close Colorado governor’s race is worth watching, just not to the degree the Senate race is.
3. IOWA SENATE: See the foregoing about Colorado. Add the fact that Joni Ernst would add to the ranks of female Republican senators and could play a key role in the state’s caucuses as the 2016 nominating process gets under way. Although the race has been close, Ernst has had a consistent lead over Democrat Bruce Braley for more than a month. It would be a downer for Republicans if she were to lose.
4. FLORIDA GOVERNOR: Partly for practical reasons, partly for personal reasons. Particularly with a pair of high-profile Republicans from the Sunshine State mulling 2016 runs (Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio), control of the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee would be helpful in turning Florida red again (not that GOP governors in 2008 or 2012 helped in that regard). But it’s also personal because the Democrat is Charlie Crist, who previously was elected governor as a Republican, flamed out in a 2010 primary to Rubio, ran in that year’s general election as an independent, and is now running for the third time with the third affiliation in just two election cycles. Whatever the merits or demerits of Gov. Rick Scott, no Republican wants to see Crist come back from the political dead. The race is thought to be very close.
5. (tie) NEW HAMPSHIRE SENATE/NORTH CAROLINA SENATE: If the GOP wins either of these, it most likely will be a very good night for the party. If it wins both, it will be virtually impossible to deny talk of a GOP wave. Neither state is hostile to Republicans, but a month ago these were thought to be in the bag for Democratic incumbents Jeanne Shaheen and Kay Hagan, respectively. Now Scott Brown (NH) and Thom Tillis (NC) have closed the gap. These are also close to must-win states if the Republican nominee in 2016 is to have a chance of moving into the White House.
7. (tie) KANSAS GOVERNOR/SENATE: Unlike Thad Cochran in Mississippi, long-time incumbent Pat Roberts didn’t see an end to his troubles after he beat back a stiff primary challenge this year. A little trickeration by the Democrats — having their candidate drop out and throwing their support behind independent candidate Greg Orman — has Roberts on the ropes. But the Republican has made up a great deal of ground in the past month, nearly drawing even in the latest polls. His resurgence may end up rescuing Gov. Sam Brownback, whose tax overhaul wasn’t done by the book in that he tried to balance the budget less with spending cuts than with one-time revenue sources (the rating agencies don’t like those kinds of maneuvers). Kansas doesn’t always vote Republican in state races, but throwing out Brownback in favor of Democrat Paul Davis would prompt the narrative that this is what happens when Republicans lower income-tax rates — never mind the contrast between how Kansas did it and how states like North Carolina have gone about it.
9. ALASKA SENATE: This is a red state with a Democratic incumbent, but the GOP doesn’t necessarily need Dan Sullivan to unseat Mark Begich in order to take control of the Senate. This seat could, however, be the difference between a difficult majority of 51 and a more workable group of 53 or 54. Getting as wide a majority as possible this year will be key in 2016, when the GOP has more seats to defend than the Democrats (24-10).
10. (tie) KENTUCKY SENATE/VIRGINIA SENATE: At this point, neither seat seems likely to change hands (a Republican incumbent holds the former, a Democratic incumbent the latter). If Mitch McConnell somehow manages to lose to Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky, you won’t need to stay up for another result: It would signal the beginning of a terrible showing for the GOP. If Mark Warner somehow falls to Republican Ed Gillespie in Virginia, the reverse would be true. In either case, we’d be looking at one party losing a seat thought to be much safer than a toss-up. At that point, Katie bar the door.
(Note: This post has been edited to add the names of candidates left out when it was first published.)