Midterms in the Midwest

Nov 2, 2014 | Politics


The Midwest has historically served as the political bellwether for the United States, and you don’t have to squint too hard to see heartland races this November as analogs for major national issues. Contested Senate battles, struggles between the Tea Party and Republican establishment, the minimum wage, taxes, education and the other divisive policy issues of the day will play out here in the same defining manner as the nation at large.


If it’s not enough for Democrats that they’ll be losing one of their most prominent and tenured voices to retirement in Iowa’s Tom Harkin this fall, the sting will be all the more efficacious if Harkin’s vacated seat goes to one-and-a-half-term State Senator Joni Ernst (R), a conservative who’s earned her political clout in three years by rejecting everything on Democrats’ national agenda. Minimum wage increases? No. Medicaid expansion? Nope. Gun control legislation? Nah. Climate change action? Nein. She also wants to dissolve the IRS and Department of Education (but keep Pell grants!).

Democratic candidate Bruce Braley, a U.S. Representative from the Quad City area, has an extensive House voting record for opponents to pick on, and Ernst enjoys a seven-point lead in the most recent Des Moines Register poll. Democrats have even sent in the First Lady to campaign on Braley’s behalf down the stretch. This hasn’t done enough, as Nate Silver gives Braley just a 35 percent chance of filling Harkin’s seat. If Democrats are to keep the Senate, the populist Braley will have to steal this one. 


Illinois State Senator Jim Oberweis (R) has resembled the Illinois politics version of the Washington Generals, the dummy team that opposes the Harlem Globetrotters, over the last decade or so. He has twice run and failed for the Senate Republican nomination in Illinois, lost a Republican primary for governor in 2006, and after winning his party’s nomination for Illinois’s 14th Congressional district in 2008, lost in the general election. After winning a state Senate seat in 2012 and finally capturing the Republican nomination for US Senate in 2014, it looks likely Oberweis will reprise his losing role this November, as he opposes impregnable three-term Senator Dick Durbin (D) Nate Silver gives Oberweis a less than one percent chance of unseating his opponent. 


No single state typifies the major political and ideological disputes this November like Kansas, as races for governor and Senate each highlight national political storylines.

To many, the gubernatorial race in Kansas is a referendum on policies championed by the Tea Party denizens. Incumbent Sam Brownback (R), a Tea Party and Koch Brothers favorite, opposes state House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a moderate Democrat. In a state that has historically been politically temperate, Brownback’s regime, with conservative up-and-comer Chris Kobach playing an active role as Attorney General, has passed, inter alia, gun nullification legislation, restricted abortion access, ended teacher tenure and slashed income taxes to levels Heritage Foundation researches journal about before bed at night. 

Those tax cuts may be Brownback’s undoing. State revenues are $282 million below budget projections for the current fiscal year, and state figures predict a $300 million budget deficit in the coming fiscal year.  

Davis claims that 500 former and current Republican elected officials, government workers, teachers, etc. have pledged him their vote, and the balance of polls handicaps this race as a dead heat going into November 4th.  

Meanwhile, Kansas’s bizarre Senate race has a chance to play a defining role in the ideological identity of the chamber over the next term. Three-term incumbent Republican Pat Roberts opposes Greg Orman, an Independent and independently wealthy businessman from suburban Kansas City who has historically sat just left of center.

Roberts, who barely survived a run to his right in the Republican primary by Milton R. Wolf (a Tea Partier and, perhaps ironically, a distant cousin of President Obama), limps into the election wary from repeated questions of his true residence and attacks on his conservative bona fides. Orman, who leapt into a small lead in the polls when Democratic nominee Chad Taylor dropped from the race in September, has effectively avoided coming out in support of or against any person, issue or idea other than Pat Roberts. He’s adroitly remained mum on which party he’d caucus within the Senate if elected and rarely taken questions from the press – evidently seeing it to his benefit to remain effectively anonymous until Election Day. The race has devolved into whether Orman’s anonymity can outstrip Roberts’s unpopularity – actual policy issues be damned. 

After the aforementioned Kobach’s brazenly partisan attempt to force Democrats to put a name on the ballot failed, Orman enters the final days of the campaign with a slight edge in the polls and looks likely to join Maine’s Angus King as the only other moderate Independent in the Senate.   


One state in which Democrats figure to keep their blue seat warm is Michigan, where state Senator Gary Peters (D) enjoys a comfortable lead over former Michigan Secretary of State Teri Lynn Land (R). The race is to replace six-term Senator Carl Levin, the liberal who will join Tom Harkin in retirement this fall. Land, a conservative who flirts with libertarianism, has been abandoned in recent weeks by national GOP funding as she’s dipped in polls. President Obama campaigned for his first Senate candidate this weekend when he appeared in support of Peters.  


Senator Al Franken (D), who needed the Minnesota court’s help to win his first Senate campaign in 2008, is given a 92 percent chance by Nate Silver to retain his seat this time around against challenger Mike McFadden (R). Franken, the sharp-mouthed former Saturday Night Live writer, helped write a few provisions into the Affordable Care Act during his first term in the Senate, but he otherwise stayed out of major legislative quarrels. This seems to have suited Minnesota voters, who appear poised to give Franken another six years in Washington. 


The Midwest is replete with historically moderate states in a struggle for their ideological souls, and, among them, Missouri’s left hand is losing to its right. Fresh off instituting a 72-hour mandatory abortion waiting period and amending the state constitution to ensure Missourians’ right to bear arms is unalienable (who needs your rights anyway, James Madison?), an amendment that would institute pay-for-performance standards for teachers, limit teacher contracts to a maximum of three years and revoke the right of teachers to collectively bargain on what methods are used for their evaluation will be opened to the state for a vote on Election Day. 

Retired investment banker and billionaire Rex Sinquefield used his PAC – the ironically named “Teach Great” – and $1.6 million of his own money to get the initiative onto the November 4th ballot, but Teach Great actually folded operations last month. It’s hard to see how the amendment passes, but it’s even harder to see how such a haphazard bill was allowed on the ballot in the first place.


Here’s a name to jot down if you’re so inclined: Ben Sasse. The auspicious Republican candidate for Nebraska’s vacated Senate seat is as Nebraska as Lil’ Red, Ivy League-educated several times over and has made friends in helpful places – Wall Street, Washington and, more recently, higher education – already in his career, and he holds a formidable lead in the polls heading into the final days. 

The 42-year-old Sasse has received campaign support from the Tea Party troika of Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz and Mike Lee, and, while Sasse might not lean as far to the right as the young Senator from Texas whose affection he’s won, Sasse may have Cruz’s knack for making noise as a freshman Senator if he wins. He’s already had a public tussle with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell over politician health-care subsidies.

Sasse, who has outraised Democrat Dave Domina nearly 7-to-1 in the Senate race, has walked a traditionally conservative line in the lead-up to the election, but he’s also publicly decried Republicans’ penchant for being the party of opposition rather than the party of ideas. He recently told the Lincoln Journal-Star, “The Republican Party has to be able to explain what we’re for, that we’re for people, not just against programs.” That said, he also said in the same interview that a goal is to repeal The Affordable Care Act, so it’s hard to know where he stands. 

True to form, ideological course-correcting, and contested state elections will dominate the Heartland this November. While Iowa’s Senate seat may turn red this fall, the projected victory by a (historically) slightly blue Independent in Kansas means it’s not likely the Senate will be won or lost in the Midwest, and that seems befitting of the country’s moderate region.

Topics: Elections