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Races to watch in 2014

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It happens every four years. The political party on the defensive tries to portray the gubernatorial, House and Senate races in off-year elections as individual races without a unifying theme. The party with the whip hand tries to portray these races as a national referendum on an important issue or on an unpopular president.

That’s happening again this year. But whether these races are national or local, several statewide contests will have national importance. Here is an observer’s guide to some that may matter most:

■ Arizona governor. The last three governors of the state were women, one Democratic and two Republican. Of the 14 governors since mid-century, seven were Republicans and seven were Democrats. Three Arizonans — one Democrat who was not nominated, two Republicans who were — have run for president in the past half-century.

All that suggests the state is a model of political balance. It is not. Since the middle of the 20th century, the state has voted Republican in every presidential election but one (1996, when Bill Clinton defeated Robert J. Dole).

But that does not mean it is not a bellwether.

■ Iowa Senate. Tom Harkin has been an unbending oak in Iowa politics for a generation, first as a crusading House member, later as a liberal stalwart in the Senate. He’s retiring. The race to fill his spot is important, and not only because the destiny of every Democratic-held Senate seat is important.

The issue here is the political profile of Iowa, the site of the first presidential caucus in 2016. The state’s gubernatorial race won’t tell us much significant. The incumbent, Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, is running for his sixth term — if he wins, he’d be positioned to be the longest-serving governor in American history — and so the gubernatorial race is less about issues than it is about Branstad.

The focus instead is on the GOP Senate primary, with special attention on whether the nominee is identified with what are known in Iowa as “Liberty Republicans,” who are basically members of the Tea Party, or with party regulars. ■ Illinois governor. Anything unusual that happens in a president’s home state is important — and a Bruce Rauner victory in the gubernatorial race in Illinois this fall would send an especially powerful message.

Rauner, who owns a share of the Pittsburgh Steelers, is the former chairman of a private equity firm in Chicago. He is a novice to elective politics and his is a traditional Republican profile, emphasizing business values, government efficiency, reduced spending and lower taxes. To that he has added a vow to cut the state’s minimum wage. His opponent is Gov. Pat Quinn, a traditional Illinois Democrat with traditional experience (six years as lieutenant governor, four as treasurer) but an untraditional Democratic problem — opposition from unions.

■ Florida governor. Once again in 2012, the struggle for Florida’s 29 electoral votes, tied with New York as the third biggest prize in American presidential politics, was close — and, for a time, unresolved. In the end, Barack Obama prevailed, the final count giving him a victory with just a fraction over 50 percent of the vote.

With California voting Democratic the last six times, New York going Democratic the last seven times and Texas going Republican the last eight elections in a row, Florida remains the most significant swing state.

(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (dshribman@post-gazette.com, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.)

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