The West: Bellwether for the Mid-Term Elections?

With five weeks to go until Election Day, the national political environment seems to have stabilized enough to conduct some regional analysis of what’s likely to happen on November 2.  Let’s start today with the West, where highly competitive gubernatorial and Senate contests are occurring in at least seven states.

Much of the Pacific Coast seems relatively impervious to the Tea Party movement.  In California, hard-core conservative activist Chuck DeVore finished a relatively poor third in the Republican Senate primary, and gubernatorial candidate Steve Poizner, who tried to run to the right of Meg Whitman, was beaten badly.  Conservatives could not even mount a strong challenge to the much-derided RINO, Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado.  In Washington state, another TP favorite, former pro football player Clint Didier, barely broke double figure percentages in a Senate Republican primary challenge to Dino Rossi.  And in the same state, one of the more moderate new House candidates in the country, Jaime Herrera, won her primary easily.  Alaska, of course, is the exception on the coast, since its long-powerful conservative movement knocked off Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who is now running as a write-in candidate in the general election.

In any event, Republicans have at best mixed prospects for major gains on the Pacific coast.  In CA, recent polls have given Barbara Boxer a significant lead over Carly Fiorina for the Senate seat, and despite Meg Whitman’s unprecedented spending, Jerry Brown is at worst tied with her as he begins his own media campaign in the governor’s race.  Republicans have a realistic shot at just one Democratic House seat in California, and Democrats are sure to hang onto control of both chambers in the state legislature.

In Washington state, Patty Murray appears to be opening up a modest but consistent lead over Rossi, who led her in some early polls.  While Herrera has a good shot at picking up an open Democratic House seat, only one incumbent Democrat, Rick Hansen, seems to be in jeopardy.  In Oregon, former Gov. John Kitzhaber is in a close race with Republican Chris Dudley for the governorship.

In Hawaii, Democrats have a better than even chance of flipping control of the governorship, with former congressman Neil Abercrombie a solid favorite over Lt. Gov. Duke Aoina, and of retaking Abercrombie’s House seat, which was lost in a special election earlier this year thanks to multiple Democratic candidates.

In Alaska, Democratic Senate candidate Scott McAdams remains underfunded and little-known; his fate almost certainly depends on the viability of Murkowski’s write-in campaign down the stretch.

Moving eastward from the Pacific, Colorado is another hotly disputed state.  Tea Party favorite Ken Buck has been leading Sen. Michael Bennet in early general election polls, but this race is likely to tighten up.  John Hickenlooper is almost certain to hold the governorship for Democrats thanks to the conservative split between Republican nominee Don Maes and former congressman Tom Tancredo, who is running on the Constitution Party ballot.   Republicans think they have a shot at taking two Democratic House seats, though their best chance is against freshman congresswoman Betsy Markey.   Turning south to New Mexico, Republican gubernatorial candidate Susana Martinez has recently taken a steady lead in the polls against Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, who once looked invincible, and two Democratic House members, Harry Teague and Martin Heinrich, in some peril.  In Arizona, Sen. John McCain and Gov. Jan Brewer look safe to hold onto their seats for the GOP, and though Republicans have visions of picking up as many as three House seats, all three Democrats—Gabby Giffords, Anne Kirkpatrick and Harry Mitchell, are in reasonably strong condition.

Finally, in Nevada, one of the top national races looks almost certain to go right down to the wire, with Sen. Harry Reid and Tea Party champion Sharron Angle running neck and neck in virtually every post-primary poll.  Reid would probably be doomed against any other Republican opponent, but Angle’s long history of eccentric issue positions has given him a new lease on life.

All in all, the West could prove to be a national bellwether. A true Republican tsunami in the region could produce a net gain of four Senate seats (Washington, California, Colorado and Nevada), two governorships (Oregon and New Mexico), and nine House seats.  On the other hand, a stronger-than-expected Democratic performance could keep Republicans from gaining any net Senate seats, and could actually give Democrats a net gain of one gubernatorial seat (Wyoming looks to be a certain Republican gubernatorial pickup, but that could be offset by a Jerry Brown win in California and an Abercrombie win in Hawaii). None of the Western House races in which Republicans now look strong is a slam-dunk.

One regional factor that use to bedevil strategists is now of declining importance: the hope or fear that early returns from the eastern and central times zones could influence final turnout in very close races.  That’s because voting by mail is increasingly important in the West, with all ballots in OR and WA; most in Colorado; and over half in California, now being cast by mail.  The dominance of voting by mail will also significantly limit the impact of very late campaign activity in many states.  If Meg Whitman’s going to hit her target of spending $150 million in personal funds in the CA gubernatorial race, she’ll probably hit it well before November 2.

Photo credit: Michael R. Swigart