5 Issues That Will Define The Final Weeks of the Midterm Elections

With the weeks closing in on the 2014 midterms, polls are tightening up, candidates are attempting to attract undecided voters, and specific issues are capturing headlines. Gone are the days that the primary arguments against Obama revolved around Obamacare. That was the battle-cry in 2010 and after a fiscal cliff that was delayed, a sequester, a partial government shutdown, and a national debt hike, the Affordable Care Act still took off like Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose.

The general theme in the media is that Republicans are hoping to retake control of the Senate so they could provide a united legislative front against President Obama’s executive overreach. Meanwhile the Democrats are hoping to prevent the GOP from picking up the 6 seats necessary to make that change a reality.

Unfortunately, the media is more focused on the bigger picture power struggle and not as much on the issues Congress is facing now and in the near future.

These five topics are the biggest issues that will define the final weeks of the election. Since the vast majority of the seats are noncompetitive, the real battleground races have different tactics on how to spin these issues.

 

Just 35 of 435 Elections Competitive after 201 Years of Gerrymandering

 

The Economy

The economy was the number one issue in 2008 and Obama led his fellow Democrats on a platform that everything will change for the better. Now, Obama is not on the ballot, but he made a strong statement in his recent speech at Northwestern University that his policies are on the ballot.

This puts strain on the Democrats in red states who are trying really hard to keep their seats by distancing themselves from Obama. How can Arkansas U.S. Senator Mark Pryor (D) and Louisiana U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu (D) attract moderate voters when the president has 31 percent and 40 percent approval ratings in those respective states?

Over the summer, a poll showed that voters are beginning to believe Republicans have the better answers for the economy. This turnaround comes while voters are not exactly thanking the Democrats for changing things for the better. As long as Republicans work with Democrats on tax reform and the unemployment rate doesn’t start ticking up again, the economy will get better.

The Environment

With an issue this big, it goes beyond Congress and encompasses everything from gubernatorial races to the president and the United Nations. There was a big oil boom in the United States at the same time there is a fundraising war in the midterm elections.

Billionaires from the Koch Brothers to Tom Steyer have used their money to push their own agendas on energy and the environment. Steyers’ NextGen Climate Action PAC has a wide reach, from limiting carbon emissions in the Pacific Northwest to Florida’s governor’s race.

The United States is quickly becoming the world’s top oil producer so it is raising questions like what to do with the oil surplus. Currently, the United States can’t export oil. That restriction may change with the next Congress. It may also bing back the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

Sen. Landrieu, chair of the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has the support of conservative Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.). The political math behind this support is that if Landrieu loses and the Democrats retain control, the next in line to chair the Energy Committee is Sen. Maria Cantwell from Washington state, who has a harsher opinion of the oil industry.

Whoever has the chair can influence legislation that could push through a Congress-approved Keystone XL plan.

Education

Education is more or less a statewide issue as opposed to a congressional one. That is why gubernatorial candidates tend to focus on gaining education union endorsements and education-based fundraising.

When education funding gets cut, and your kids pay the price, that is a down payment on decline.
Hillary Clinton
Take the governor’s race in Pennsylvania for example. Education has played a big role and the recent campaign stops for Chris Christie and Hillary Clinton to boost support for Governor Corbett (R) and Democratic nominee Tom Wolf (D), respectively, point to a contested race. Wolf is still ahead by double digits in multiple polls, surprising considering he is not the incumbent.

Clinton emphasized education’s role not just in Wolf’s campaign, but in general.

“When education funding gets cut, and your kids pay the price, that is a down payment on decline. It needs to be reversed, and the person to do it is Tom Wolf,” she said.

In response to the cuts under Corbett, Wolf said he would, if elected, impose a 5 percent severance tax on natural gas companies as a way to refund education.

A focus on education at the state level has also created an intriguing dynamic in the pivotal North Carolina Senate race. Republican challenger Thom Tillis, as speaker of the state legislature, pushed for a bill that reduced education funding for K-12 and beyond by nearly $500 billion. Politifact pointed out that the votes went along strict party lines, but the issue was that it was $481 billion below what was requested in a continuation budget.

Immigration

If the issue being discussed isn’t the lackluster economic recovery dampening Obama’s high expectations when he took office, chances are it is immigration. Immigration has been a thorn in the president’s domestic policy and now it is hurting Democrats up for re-election.

Non-partisan groups such as Voto Latino are aiming to register as many Latinos as possible, but they are not afraid to attack Republicans who support efforts to curtail immigration reform and the Democrats who back these Republicans.

Last month, Senators Pryor and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) were forced to cast a vote in favor of Sen. Jeff Sessions’ (R-Ala.) provision to a continuing resolution that would have funded the government for a few months. The amendment would have put an end to DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and limited Obama’s executive actions regarding immigration.

The amendment didn’t pass, but it was a difficult vote for endangered incumbents.

Now Presente Action is pushing Latinos to either withhold their support from these endangered Democrats (also Landrieu and Hagan) or vote for their Republican opponents. Either way, it would send a message that the issue goes beyond partisan politics.

The Islamic State

President Obama’s foreign policy was supposed to be about ramping down the wars and focusing on increased trade from the Middle East. Now, the Islamic State has refocused attention and raised the idea of bringing troops back. The threat is serious, but some candidates are trying to turn that fear into votes.

Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Alaska), a former army captain, believes ISIL is probably working with Mexican drug cartels and going to attack through the border. Mr. Cotton is not the only one to try and connect the Islamic State with increased border security, but both Democrats and Republicans are trying to be as hawkish as possible.

Take Iowa for example, where Joni Ernst (D) is facing Rep. Bruce Braley (R) to fill retiring Democrat Tom Harkin’s U.S. Senate seat. In their first debate a few weeks ago, Rep. Braley claims he voted to support airstrikes in Iraq and Syria when he really voted for supplying “appropriately vetted Syrian groups and individuals” with material and training to conduct the airstrikes. It may be splitting hairs, but one side sounds tougher and the other is the truth.

Arming Syrian rebels and air strikes are one thing, but boots on the ground is not in the near future — not yet, anyway. If it does come to that, it will be after the midterm elections so the winners will be the ones casting the difficult vote.

 

These delicate issues require more than just a campaign speech or fundraising ads. They require action. The topics in the mainstream media have circled around the power struggle in the Senate, but there will need to be support on both sides of the aisle.

With the 2014 midterms quickly approaching, it is no wonder these issues are heating up. However, right now the candidates are just using them to attack each other. The action required to solve them will be left to the next Congress.

So while the politicians are busy sparring in debates, the problems will continue. Whether it is trying to appeal to Latinos in tight races like Colorado, climate change issues in Louisiana and Florida, or broader national problems like education and the economy or international ones like ISIL, a lot has been added to next Congress’ plate.