2014 Midterm Primer: What & Who You Need To Know, & What You Need To Ignore

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 05: Voters fill out their ballots at a polling station on November 5, 2013 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. New Yorkers went to the polls to choose between Democratic candidate Bill de Blasio and Republican Joe Lhota. De Blasio was widely considered the favorite going into election day. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
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In just a few short days, what feels like years of campaigning will come to an either triumphant or disappointing close for candidates across the country with the conclusion of the 2014 midterm elections. These races are seemingly unprecedented in their importance, as the United States and her politicians engage in a series of debates about a multiplicity of issues ranging from healthcare to immigration to jobs. 

In the six years since President Obama assumed office, the United States has seen an economic recession, an overhaul in healthcare policy and the emergence of a new terrorist organization more frightening still than Al-Qaeda. As such, it comes as no surprise that the midterms have focused heavily on both domestic and foreign policy issues, and the races in many states are not contingent on local issues, but rather broader, more far-reaching affairs. So what do you need to know and who do you need to know? And more importantly, what should you be tuning out in the face of all the noise that inevitably accompanies races of this magnitude? Here with a state-by-state explanation of the most important issues (as well as who's representing them) is your handy dandy guide to the 2014 midterms. 

Why These Midterms Matter

Before we launch into what you need to know, you should probably know what's at stake. Midterms, which happen every two years (in between presidential elections, hence the name) decide a number of public offices, but are most important in determining the composition of Congress. With Obama looking at his last two years in office, a Republican-controlled Congress could sound the death knell of all legislative progress. The increasing ideological divide between the two parties in the United States has come to a roaring head over the last few years, with some citing the election of Obama himself as the catalyst for groups like the Tea Party and other ultraconservatives. 

Currently, the Republicans are in control of the House of Representatives, and the Democrats run the Senate. But this may change with these elections — while most experts agree that the GOP will maintain power in the House, the Senate is a little less predictable. Currently, there are 53 Democrats, 45 Republicans, and two Independent senators. Republicans would need to win six Senate seats to comfortably claim an advantage in both houses of Congress. 

While Obama managed to squeeze the Affordable Care Act through in the nick of time, it seems unlikely that anything regarding immigration, campaign finance reform, marijuana policy, or other hot button issues that appear divided down party lines will remain in a state of gridlock if Republicans take the Senate.

Beyond legislation, a Republican Congress would also make it more difficult for Obama to gain approval for nominees to various cabinet positions, and perhaps more importantly, Supreme Court justices. Justices Breyer, Kennedy, Ginsburg, and Scalia are all over 75 years of age, and while justices are certainly retiring later and later in their careers, it seems that several members of the nine-member Supreme Court may soon be nearing the end of their decades-long tenure on the bench. If this is the case, Obama will almost certainly attempt to appoint more liberal justices, a move that a Republican Congress would most likely reject. 

The Overarching Issues 

While each state will invariably have a specific agenda for its candidates to focus on, there are a few general matters that will divide voters along party lines regardless of whether they're in Texas or New York. Here are a just a few:

President Obama

The man, the myth, the most divisive president since, well, our last president. One of the key weapons Republicans have used against Democrats in the months leading up to the midterms has been their allegiance to the president. Voting with President Obama became a major criticism of Democrats who Republicans claimed were more interested in supporting a member of their party than abiding by the best interests of their constituents. 

Obamacare

If Obama is an issue, you can bet that his namesake policy is as divisive as he is. The healthcare legislation has landed Obama in a lawsuit, spearheaded by none other than Speaker of the House John Boehner. Well, the lawsuit hasn't exactly happened yet, and now it seems as though Boehner's bark was much meaner than his bite — in fact, according to a Congressional Research Service report, the Obamacare lawsuit wouldn't really hold much water, as the president acted within his legal boundaries in terms of rolling out the policy. Still, with the nation solidly divided on how they feel about government mandated healthcare, this is sure to be a major issue across the board. 

The Economy 

Job security has been on most voters' minds since 2008, and six years later, the economy remains rather sluggish. Of course, this seems to be a point of contention nearly every election cycle, but it's still particularly salient this year, with 48 percent of voters surveyed by the Pew Research Center citing it as their primary concern.

The States

So now that we know what broad issues we can expect to play into the 2014 midterms, it's worth taking a look at which states will be the most crucial, or perhaps, the most unpredictable in determining the makeup of Congress. Here are the most precarious states and the issues that matter most for each of them.

The Potential Runoffs 

Of the seven tossup states, at least two seem to be hurtling towards a runoff. This would further delay election results, as some runoffs don't take place until January of 2015, adding even more uncertainty to the races. 

Georgia

The Peach State boasts one of the closest matches in the country, with nearly every expert forecaster sending Republican David Perdue, 64, and Democrat Michelle Nunn, 47 into a runoff situation. Incumbent Saxby Chambliss is not running for reelection, and announced his intention to retire in 2013. While neither of the candidates have held high profile political offices, they both come from political families, with Perdue's cousin Sonny serving as a former governor of Georgia, and Nunn's father a former Senator himself. 

As of Oct. 14's Princeton Election Consortium poll, Perdue held a 1.5 percent lead over his Democratic opponent, but with some polls showing Libertarian Amanda Swafford claiming up to 5 percent of the vote, it's possible that none of the candidates will reach the necessary majority vote in order to claim the Senate seat. If this is the case, Perdue and Nunn will go head to head against one another. 

The Issues

Undoubtedly, the economy is the biggest problem for Georgians to consider when making their decisions at the polls. Perdue, who was once the CEO of Dollar General and Reebok, has substantial business experience, but has been accused by Nunn for sending jobs overseas as part of his business plan.

In early October, Politico published records of a deposition Perdue gave as part of a lawsuit concerning the failure of North Carolina-based textile company Pillowtex, which Perdue ran before it closed. When he was asked about his "experience with outsourcing," he responded, "Yeah, I spent most of my career doing that."

Women's rights will also likely figure into the results of the election, as Nunn fights to become only the second woman ever elected to Senate from Georgia. Though Georgians were responsible for placing the first female Senator in American history, Rebecca Latimer Felton, in 1922, she has not been proceeded by any more women. 

Why Georgia Matters

If typically Republican Georgia swings blue, it may foreshadow a host of problems for the GOP in years to come. The South, which is generally considered a Republican stronghold, seems to be turning to shades of pink and purple, and is no longer as solidly red as it was a few years ago. 

Louisiana

The second state forecasted to end in a runoff, Louisiana is also particularly problematic as far as timing goes because their actual election doesn't happen until Dec. 6. Incumbent Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu currently holds a slim lead over her Republican opponent, Rep. Bill Cassidy, but it may not be enough to pull out a surefire win. 

Worse yet, if Landrieu doesn't win in the general election, it is highly unlikely that she'll be able to beat Cassidy one-on-one, as polls show that voters prefer Cassidy to Landrieu by a margin of seven points if there are no other candidates in play. 

The Issues

Remember those general issues we talked about earlier? They definitely come into play here, as Cassidy's main ammunition against Landrieu is her pro-Obama voting record. Louisiana, a state where fewer than 15 percent of white residents voted for the president, is unlikely to support a senator who seems to take her cues purely from the executive. Obamacare is particularly contentious in Louisiana, and Landrieu's opponents have missed no opportunities to remind voters of the current Senator's decision to vote in favor of the Affordable Care Act. 

Why Louisiana Matters

If Landrieu loses, there won't be a single Democrat left in the state. Ok fine, it's not that dramatic, but there won't be any statewide elected Democrats left, and that'll mark the first time this has happened since 1876. So no pressure, Senator Landrieu, but we kind of need you to pull through on this one. Unlike Georgia, which may be turning bluer, Louisiana is turning redder by the day — the state hasn't voted for a Democratic president since 1996, and there hasn't been a Democrat in the governor's mansion since 2003.

Landrieu, however, is no stranger to this sort of scrutiny — the three-term senator has been involved in close races every time she's been up for election, and has pulled through each time. 

The Other Close Races 

The following states may not be as likely to end in a runoff, but experts are still unsure of whether a Democrat of Republican will come out on top. 

Colorado

While Senator Mark Udall was expected to win this race easily, things haven't panned out quite as well for the Democrat as he would've hoped, as polls show his opponent, Republican Cory Gardner, charging ahead. Despite a high-profile visit from Hillary Clinton, it seems that the best thing that came out of that trip was a really wonderful picture of a really excited 10-year-old. Udall himself didn't make any significant gains with voters, and his defeat seems increasingly imminent. Much of that, once again, has a lot to do with his support of Obama and Obamacare, which didn't roll out all too well in Colorado, and made several voters very, very angry.

The Issues

Women are going to be a big point of contention in these Colorado races. Udall's weapon of choice seems to be Gardner's stance as a staunch pro-life, anti-birth control candidate, which is beginning to lose its effectiveness with some of Gardner's own rebranding. Back in June, Gardner came out in support of over-the-counter birth control, declawing some of Udall's previous claims. But Udall and other pro-choice activists maintained that supporting over-the-counter birth control was not the equivalent of true recognition of women's reproductive rights. 

Dawn Laguens, the executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Votes, told the Huffington Post in a statement, 
If Cory Gardner thinks he can delete his long record of restricting women’s access to health care with one op-ed, he clearly doesn’t respect the intelligence of Colorado women. He voted against a bill that defined birth control as as part of medical care, he tried to stop hospitals from having to supply emergency contraception for rape survivors, and he voted to allow bosses to deny birth control coverage for their employees.

More contentiously, Gardner previously supported a personhood bill, one of many in the country that have failed. These bills attempt to extend the same rights granted to breathing human beings to fertilized eggs, essentially defining the start of personhood at the moment of conception. Gardner later reneged on his support of the bill, but Udall has never allowed his opponent to live this change of heart down. 

Why Colorado Matters

As with all these down to the wire states, Colorado could be a determining factor in whether Democrats keep or lose the Senate. Back in September, Udall had a solid six point lead on Gardner, but the tables have turned very quickly since then. Also, women will likely be the determining factor in this race, which is always nice to hear. 

Alaska

Sarah Palin isn't the only thing making waves this time of year. The Alaska race is a tossup, and while the state prides itself on being largely independent — 54 percent of voters are independent or undeclared — the biggest state in the union historically goes Republican. So it comes as little surprise that the senator in danger of being unseated is a Democrat, first-timer Sen. Mark Begich. Given that this was Begich's first term, some naysayers are accusing the freshman senator of being an ineffective politician, making few gains for the state as a whole. 

Worse yet, challenger Dan Sullivan says, Begich supported Obama in several key issues, namely Obamacare, for which Begich is accused of casting the "deciding vote." In retaliation, Begich has pointed out that the Affordable Care Act has actually made it possible for 37 percent of previously uninsured Alaskans to gain healthcare, but in a state that has always prided itself on fierce independence from the rest of the continental United States, voters may not be looking for a loyal follower. 

The Issues

Abortion is the name of the game in Alaska. Begich, in keeping with the Democratic platform, is far more liberal on reproductive rights policies, whereas his Republican challengers, Sullivan included, remain quite staunchly opposed to women's choice. This may make women, once again, a key factor in determining who will walk away victorious in Alaska. 

The minimum wage debate has also been prevalent in working-class areas of Alaska, where the standard is on the low end at $7.75 an hour. Begich has led the charge to raise this to $10.10 an hour, and while Sullivan initially opposed the bill, he later recanted and came out in support of Begich's legislation. 

Marijuana

While marijuana legislation isn't exactly a divisive point for Begich and Sullivan, it will likely bring more Alaskan voters to the polls on election day, as Alaskans decide whether or not to legalize weed. Ballot Measure 2 "would allow home grows (up to six plants, three flowering at any time) and non-commercial transfer," and would feature a rather steep tax of $50 per ounce of the drug

Why Alaska Matters

Mostly, Alaska's high profile nature stems from its unpredictability — Begich won very narrowly during the last election, and if he holds onto his seat, it could very well keep the Republicans from achieving their much-desired Senate majority.

North Carolina

The one-point race in the Tar Heel state is by far the nastiest and most expensive in these 2014 midterms. Incumbent Kay Hagan, who has been attacked relentlessly by the GOP since she ousted Republican Elizabeth Dole back in 2008, is in danger of losing her seat to Thom Tillis, the state's Speaker of the House. Over $100 million has been spent and 90,000 attack ads have been run, and each candidate has smeared the other beyond recognition.

Unsurprisingly, Tillis' main beef with Hagan was her support of and history of voting with the president. In 2008, North Carolina shocked the nation by voting for Obama, marking the first time the state had gone blue in a presidential race since Jimmy Carter. But in the years since, Obama's popularity has faded, leaving Hagan vulnerable to Republican attacks. 

The Issues

As can be expected in a gender-divided race, abortion is one of the biggest problems that Tillis will have to contend with if he wants to win the female vote and beat Hagan. The "War on Women" argument has remained strong throughout the campaign cycle in North Carolina, with some going beyond reproductive rights and accusing Tillis of displaying a blatant lack of respect for women as a whole by making sexist, demeaning remarks towards the first-term senator. In one debate, Tillis said to his opponent,

Kay's math just doesn't add up. Here's something you should know a lot about being a senior appropriations chair, Kay. You know, Kay, if you actually read the budget. I just think again that Senator Hagan really needs to understand...

While some commentators noted the lack of respect in addressing a senator by their first name in a public debate, others were more offended by the notion that Tillis' insults about Hagan's math skills may have been linked to her being a woman. In response, Hagan said,

I'm actually insulted by his comments. I was a vice president at a bank. I wrote billion dollar state budgets in the state of North Carolina. I understand math. Even when I was a teenager I worked at my dad's tire store and did layaway for people buying tires. I understand math. 

The gendered split in North Carolina is one of the most severe in the state, with Hagan holding onto a 19 point advantage among women, while Tillis claims a 12 point advantage among men. Ladies, get to those polls, stat.

Why North Carolina Matters

Again, the Democrats can't afford to lose these key seats. But more so than that, many Democratic superstars have tried their hardest to campaign on Hagan's behalf, including potential 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. If Hagan loses after $100 million and nearly 100,000 ads, it'll be a difficult loss to swallow.

Kansas

As frightened as the Democrats are of losing their narrow margin in the Senate, Republicans are just as concerned that previous red strongholds may be rethinking their allegiances, and chief among their concerns is Kansas. Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, who has been in office since 1997, may not be as venerable as he once was, as his long tenure in Congress has now made him seem out of touch with Kansas voters, particularly because he may or may not still live in the state at all.

Giving Roberts a run for his money is Independent candidate Greg Orman. So hopeful are the liberals that Orman will bring home gold that they've withdrawn the official Democratic candidate from the ticket altogether. This may not be the best strategy for the Dems, as Orman has said that he will caucus with whichever party holds the majority in Senate. So if it's still the Republicans, then it won't really matter if it's Orman or Roberts. 

That being said, Orman did run as a Democrat in 2008, which has led to opponents labeling him a "closet Democrat." Tuesday's polls show Orman with a two point lead over Roberts, but that may grow over the next few days. 

The Issues

Kansas is an interesting case in that neither candidate has done much serious attacking of one another in terms of policy. Both seem more interested in promoting themselves than attacking the other, so it seems that this is a race that will come down to image. If Roberts is perceived as an outdated, non-Kansas resident, then it seems unlikely that he'll return to Washington. If Orman can convince voters that he's not, in fact, a puppet of Obama's and indeed an individualistic devotee to Kansas, then he may carry his slight margin over into a victory. 

Why Kansas Matters

Losing Kansas would be something of a shock for Republicans, who have never had to worry about the redness of this southern state. But like Georgia, if Kansas turns to an Independent, it may spell trouble for years to come. 

Images: Getty Images (23)

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