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. The state may have championed a restrictive immigration bill in 2010, but Arizona may be only a decade and a half from being a majority Hispanic state. Right now, nine Republicans and one Democrat are seeking their parties’ gubernatorial nomination. The Republicans are emphasizing business and development, the Democrat is courting gays and Latinos, both aggrieved by Republican initiatives.
This gubernatorial race may signal how Arizona, and perhaps America, will lean in the future.
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.