Top 5 Races to Watch in the Plains States

Ernst campaigns at the Iowa State Fair. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Ernst campaigns at the Iowa State Fair. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted August 25, 2014 at 5:00am

There aren’t many competitive races in the Plains States, but the region features some critical contests that could signal how well Republicans and Democrats are faring across the country.  

A trio of races dropped off the regional top five list since last summer . The South Dakota Senate race is a likely Republican takeover and not worth watching at this point. Neither is the Nebraska Senate race after former Bush administration official Ben Sasse won the Republican primary. And Iowa’s 1st District is a long shot for Republicans.  

Here are the top five races to watch in the Plains States: Iowa Senate. A year ago, Democrats were thought to be well-positioned to hold retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin’s open seat. That was based on the strength of their likely nominee, Rep. Bruce Braley, and GOP Rep. Tom Latham declining to run. But a series of unforced errors by Braley, the initial strength of Republican Joni Ernst’s candidacy, and President Barack Obama’s slumping job numbers have combined to make this one of the top Senate races in the country.
The Rothenberg Political Report /Roll Call rating: Tossup .  

Iowa’s 3rd District. At this point last year, Democratic state Sen. Staci Appel was reconsidering her decision not to challenge Latham. Now she is running for his open seat against Republican David Young, the surprise winner of his party’s nomination. The district is competitive, and may even lean slightly Democratic in presidential years, but 2014 is another animal. Both Young and Appel are perfecting their candidate skills, but this race should be very competitive. The Rothenberg Political Report /Roll Call rating: Tossup .  

Nebraska’s 2nd District. Republican Rep. Lee Terry’s life got a little easier when GOP state Sen. Chip Maxwell declined to run as an independent. Still, the congressman isn’t safe for re-election, even though midterm turnout trends should benefit him. Terry has underperformed in past races, and Democratic successful effort to get a minimum-wage-increase initiative onto the November ballot could boost Democratic turnout. State Sen. Brad Ashford, the Democratic nominee, isn’t a stellar candidate but could be credible enough. The Rothenberg Political Report /Roll Call rating: Tossup/Tilts Republican .  

Kansas Senate. “Safe” races don’t often crack top five most competitive lists, but Sen. Pat Roberts’ re-election race is an exception. The Republican incumbent successfully defeated tea-party-aligned physician Milton Wolf in the competitive GOP primary, but he has yet to solidify the Republican base. Wealthy independent Greg Orman could siphon off some Republican support with his anti-Washington message, even though Orman has previously run as a Democrat. Gov. Sam Brownback’s polarization, even among Republicans, has added another layer of complexity to the race. The Rothenberg Political Report /Roll Call rating: Safe Republican .  

Kansas Governor. Brownback is a Republican governor running for re-election in a Republican state, but he is having a tough time. His economic plan hasn’t gone as expected, some of his former aides faced unflattering headlines, and he inflamed the decadeslong battle with the state party between conservatives and moderates. Republicans are trying to discredit Democrat Paul Davis and tie him to President Barack Obama. Demonizing Davis is probably Brownback’s only play at this point. The Rothenberg Political Report /Roll Call rating: Leans Republican .  

What races would you add to or subtract from the list?  

Note: This is the fourth in a series of regional looks at the most competitive House and Senate races to watch. The Plains Region includes Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota. The previous regions: Mid-Atlantic, New England, Midwest.

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