In past presidential-election years, races up and down the ballot moved in generally the same direction for Democrats or Republicans. But this year, just four weeks before Election Day, fewer than 10 states are in play for the presidential contest, which allows for separate dynamics to take hold in House, Senate and gubernatorial races.
In the past six years, there have been three national elections, each of them producing a wave, in which races up and down the ballot moved in generally the same direction. Democrats won big in 2006 and 2008, only to see those gains reversed in the midterm election of 2010.
This year, just four weeks before Election Day, fewer than 10 states are in play for the presidential contest, which allows for separate dynamics to take hold in House, Senate and gubernatorial races elsewhere.
There is also a paradox at work. While the amount of territory being contested in the presidential race is relatively small, “this is the largest Senate map that I can remember, certainly in a decade,” said Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
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The same is true among House races, said Mike Podhorzer, political director of the AFL-CIO, though he said that could be because so many of them have been under the radar in this presidential-election year.
“It looks like suddenly a lot more races are in play,” he said. “But I think a lot of them have been in play all along, just people didn’t know about it.”
Many of the most competitive House races are taking place in what Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, calls “orphan districts,” places that the presidential campaigns are all but ignoring, and where there is not even a hotly contested Senate race.
And even in some of the battleground states, candidates say they’re not paying much attention to what is happening at the top of the ticket.
Former House member Charlie Wilson, one of a handful of ex-lawmakers seeking to return to Congress, said he cannot count on President Obama’s performance in Ohio to carry him over the top in his conservative southeastern district. “I run my race, and he runs his, and I can’t mix the two,” Wilson said.
Once-a-decade redistricting also has changed the equation. In some of the battleground states, such as Ohio and Virginia, it has strengthened the hold that Republican incumbents have on their districts and made them less vulnerable to the outcome at the top of the ticket.
But in California, where only one House seat changed parties over the past decade, the newly drawn lines have created something the state usually doesn’t see in congressional elections: suspense.
This year, the district lines have been so altered by a new nonpartisan reapportionment process that at least four of California’s 53 congressional races — all of them in seats now held by Republicans — are rated as toss-ups by the authoritative Cook Political Report.
In recent weeks, the political tide has turned ever so slightly in House Democrats’ favor. Still, to gain the 25 seats they need to return to the majority in the House, Democrats probably need to defeat at least 35 Republican incumbents. That appears unlikely, although Republicans concede privately that their ranks are likely to be reduced somewhat.
Meanwhile, in some of the 33 Senate contests, candidates are actually defying the gravitational pull from the top of the ticket.
Romney is expected to trounce Obama in North Dakota, for instance. But in that state’s Senate contest, former attorney general Heidi Heitkamp, the Democratic nominee, is running a close race against the Republican, Rep. Rick Berg.
The opposite dynamic is taking place in Connecticut, a deeply Democratic state that Obama will win in a landslide.
The Republican Senate candidate, former World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon, lost her first race in 2010, which was a good year for Republicans. This year, she is in a surprisingly tight battle against Rep. Chris Murphy, the Democratic nominee.
Republicans were thought at one point to stand a good chance of regaining the Senate majority they lost in 2006, but most handicappers now expect them to fall short.
In the governors’ races, Democrats are playing defense nationally. Eight of the governorships they hold are on the ballot this year, compared with only three for the Republicans. But only two of those races — in New Hampshire and North Carolina — are in states that are also competitive in the presidential contest.
Democrats also say they are confident that some of their candidates — particularly incumbents Earl Ray Tomblin in West Virginia and Jay Nixon in Missouri — are strong enough to withstand the Republican tide at the top of the ticket in those states.
Still another factor is at play in many states: 2012 is an unusually busy year for ballot questions, which can create a dynamic of their own. There are 174 around the country, including 12 examples of a little-used kind of referendum, which could allow voters to repeal laws recently passed by the state legislature.
Voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington state will decide whether to approve same-sex marriage. In Minnesota, by contrast, a ballot question would allow voters to explicitly bar same-sex marriage by declaring that marriage consists only of a union between one man and one woman.
Referendums in Maryland could expand casino gambling and give in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants. Among the highlights:
• In Colorado and Washington, voters could choose to legalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Oregon voters could approve a more expansive law, which would allow more pot to be sold, but only through state-run stores.
Also, a ballot measure in Arkansas could make that state the first in the South to legalize medical-marijuana use.
• Voters in five states — Alabama, Florida, Missouri, Montana and Wyoming — could vote to exempt their states from parts of President Obama’s health-care law.
Voters in 11 states also need to pick a governor:
• The most closely watched contest is in North Carolina, where Democrats could lose the governor’s mansion for the first time in two decades. Tainted by an ethics investigation, Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue opted not to seek re-election, and Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, a Democrat, is trailing Republican Pat McCrory, the former mayor of Charlotte, according to statewide polls.
• In Indiana, Republican ex-Congressman Mike Pence is running against Democrat John Gregg to succeed Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels.
• In Washington state, ex-Congressman Jay Inslee, the Democrat, narrowly leads Republican state Attorney General Rob McKenna, and in Montana, Republican ex-Congressman Rick Hill faces state Attorney General Steve Bullock, the Democrat, in a contest to succeed Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
• West Virginia voters face a rematch between Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Republican Bill Maloney. The pair faced each other last year in a race to succeed former Gov. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, who is now a U.S. senator.
• In New Hampshire, Republican lawyer Ovide Lamontagne is running against Democratic former state Senate majority leader Maggie Hassan to replace retiring Gov. John Lynch, who is a Democrat.
• Meanwhile, incumbent Democratic governors in Delaware and Missouri appear headed for easy re-election, as do incumbent Republicans in North Dakota, Utah and Vermont.