On Tuesday, November 4, all 435 seats in the U.S. House, 36 U.S. Senate seats, 36 governorships, and several state and local offices will be up for election. Many of these races were long decided during the primary election season, making the general election just a formality.
Midterm elections never have a very high voter turnout -- consistently remaining under 42 percent over the last 20 years. A key factor in this is a lack of competitive elections, something the Republican and Democratic parties benefit from most. Ninety percent of elections end up being decided in the primaries, which in traditional partisan systems means the major parties can ignore the millions of voters who choose not to affiliate with a party.
However, as major-party registration continues to decline nationwide, independent voters are getting harder and harder to ignore even in a system that is designed to diminish their voice in elections. In 2014, independent voters have an opportunity to define key races in states across the nation and even decide how the balance of power shifts in Congress' upper chamber.
Here are 5 of the biggest races independent voters will decide on Election Day:
1. U.S. Senator Pat Roberts (R) and Independent Greg Orman -- Kansas Senate Race
The last public opinion polls released for the U.S. Senate race in Kansas between incumbent Republican U.S. Senator Pat Roberts and independent candidate Greg Orman shows a single point separating the two candidates. According to Real Clear Politics, the latest PPP and Fox News polls show Orman with the slight advantage, but this election will come down to who shows up to vote on Election Day.There are a number of variables that can sway the Senate race one way or the other. Orman may have a slight lead in the polls, but because the numbers fall within the margin of error, the race is in a statistical tie. Plus, polling numbers don't always translate into votes. Orman needs to turn out the anti-incumbent vote to win the election. If he does, he would become the third independent in the U.S. Senate.
Up until September 3, the only news site that was consistently following the Greg Orman campaign and the Kansas Senate race was IVN, but when Democrat Chad Taylor announced his withdrawal from the race, national media outlets began to take notice. Now, a race that no one was watching in the beginning of the campaign season has become the race that will determine how power shifts in the Senate.
In the event that neither major party has control and Greg Orman wins, independent U.S. Sens. Angus King (Maine) and Bernie Sanders (Vermont) could team up with Orman and demand an independent caucus in the U.S. Senate. Independents have an opportunity to challenge the major parties' claim that they are entitled to control over the political process in the United States and give millions of disenfranchised voters a voice in Congress.
2. Governor Nathan Deal (R) and Democrat Jason Carter -- Georgia Governor's Race
On traditional electoral maps, Georgia is still painted a deep shade of red. However, things may change after the 2014 midterm elections are over. The power of incumbency may not save Governor Nathan Deal as he faces a tough re-election challenge from Democratic State Senator Jason Carter.In many of these highly competitive elections, the 2014 Republican playbook seems to be to link their opponents to President Barack Obama and/or Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid any way they can. The incumbent has tried to capitalize on the president's low approval rating and the Affordable Care Act's unpopularity in Georgia by tying his opponent to supporters of the health care law.
Carter, however maintains that he does not support Obamacare. In fact, he has bucked the traditional party line on issues like health care reform and gun control.
The latest polls on the race show Deal leading by as much as 6 percentage points going into Election Day. There are, however, some indicators that this race is still going to be close when the polls close, including a report that says African-American voters turned out to cast early ballots at the same levels they did in 2012 when Obama was up for re-election.
"Better Georgia polling shows that, with 33.1 percent of early votes cast, black balloters nearly match their turnout of 2012, when President Obama was up for re-election. Black voters then cast 29.2 percent of early ballots," the Atlanta Daily World reports.
While Obama didn't win Georgia in 2012, this level of enthusiasm in a midterm election is certainly unexpected; especially, when many reports suggest voter turnout could be lower than previous midterm election years.
3. U.S. Representative Scott Peters (D) and Republican Carl DeMaio -- California Congressional District 52
Although only 35 of 435 congressional seats in Congress have some degree of competitiveness to them in 2014, one of the most competitive races of those 35 is in California's 52nd Congressional District between Democratic U.S. Rep. Scott Peters and his Republican challenger, Carl DeMaio.
Since winning the June primary by 7 percentage points, Peters has not been able to hold on to such a comfortable lead and is, in fact, slightly trailing his opponent in recent polls. A key factor in this race may be the 49 percent of likely independent voters who say they support DeMaio over the incumbent.
In a September interview for IVN, DeMaio said, “This is a seat that reflects the future of America and that is that we are fiscally responsible and socially accepting.”
“I think I’m a candidate that fits this district,” he added.
Both major parties have flooded the San Diego market with television ads and mailers trying to sway voters away from the opposing candidate rather than trying to convince them to vote for their candidate. However, despite partisan efforts and a race that has been defined by wave after wave of negative attack ads, the election will ultimately be decided by independent voters in the district, who, according to the secretary of state, make up approximately 30 percent of the electorate.
4. Colorado Governor's Race
Colorado’s gubernatorial race features a handful of candidates, all vying for the state’s top office. Neither Governor John Hickenlooper (D) nor U.S. Representative Bob Beuprez (R) have a clear advantage in the race, with some polls showing the incumbent with as much as a two-point lead, some showing Beuprez leading, and some showing a tie.However, three other candidates are on the ballot and they will play a
major role in determining the outcome of this race: Libertarian Mathew Hess, Green Party candidate Harry Hempy, and Glendale Mayor Mike Dunafon and Paul Florino are running as Independents.
While the non-major party candidates haven’t built much traction in the polls (garnering a combined 4%), they are leaving their mark on the race. The front-runners’ attitudes on Colorado’s recent legalization of marijuana has the potential to turn off voters who would have otherwise turned out in November.
The race is expected to be extremely close and will likely be decided by the tightest of margins, meaning non-major-party variables will be key to deciding who will be Colorado's next governor.
5. Top-Two Primary Reform -- Oregon's Measure 90
Two measures to open up Oregon’s closed primary elections were put forward earlier this year. In July, only one advanced to appear on the November ballot — Measure 90.
Measure 90 would change the Beaver State’s closed partisan primary system into a nonpartisan, top-two open primary. It would be similar to the primary systems in neighboring California and Washington state with a few key differences:
- Party endorsements will appear on the ballot next to their endorsed candidate
- Requires more information be provided to voters on the ballot
- Oregon’s current use of fusion voting, which allows multiple parties to nominate one candidate, will remain unchanged
If Measure 90 passes, Oregon’s 650,000 independent voters will have a chance to participate in the state's primary elections for the first time without sacrificing their First Amendment right to non-association.
The measure has received heavy opposition from not only the Republican and Democratic parties, but minor parties as well. Polling conducted in early October shows opposition to the measure with a 2-point advantage, but at the time the survey was taken, over a quarter of respondents said they had not decided.