5 under-the-radar races that could surprise us on Election Day

With 13 days until voters head to the polls, here are some competitive races you probably haven't heard much about

Published October 22, 2014 12:57PM (EDT)

With control of Congress’ upper chamber at stake this year, it’s not surprising that a handful of extremely close Senate contests are receiving the bulk of political junkies’ attention as we enter the midterms’ final stage.

Of course, 2014 also features a number of marquee gubernatorial contests, and they haven’t escaped political prognosticators’ attention. But beyond those races and the fight for Senate control, a handful of contests have largely eluded close scrutiny yet may well surprise us come Election Day.

This morning, Salon looks at five under-the-radar races, all but one of which involve incumbents with varying degrees of vulnerability. These elections won’t necessarily end in defeat for the party holding each seat, but political dynamics and recent developments in the races suggest that they deserve more attention than they’ve garnered so far.

Alaska governor

Of the five races on this list, Alaska’s gubernatorial face-off is the most likely to witness a loss for the incumbent party. Republican Gov. Sean Parnell, who took over the governorship after Sarah Palin’s resignation in 2009, faces a challenge from independent Bill Walker, a former Republican. This summer, Walker fused his campaign with that of the Democratic nominee, Byron Mallot, who dropped his gubernatorial candidacy and is now Walker’s running mate. Polls suggest that the unity effort is working, with Walker boasting an average lead of nearly 4 points, according to RealClearPolitics.

Why is Parnell endangered? For starters, his administration’s overhaul of Palin’s tax on the state’s energy industry has generated concerns about revenue shortfalls, National Journal reports. Moreover, the governor has been badly damaged by a blistering federal report uncovering fraud, “actual and perceived favoritism,” and “ethical misconduct” in Alaska’s National Guard, of which Parnell is commander in chief.

Arizona governor

Term-limited Gov. Jan Brewer is retiring, and the race to replace her pits Democratic businessman Fred DuVal against Republican Doug Ducey, the former CEO of Cold Stone Creamery. Polling in the race has been scant, leaving us without a firm sense of the state of play, but the most recent survey finds Ducey leading DuVal 47 to 42 percent.

Given that it’s a midterm year and that Democrats haven’t been able to make Arizona competitive the way they have with other Western states like Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, Ducey has to be considered the favorite here. But Ducey is running on an extremely conservative platform, vowing to repeal the state’s income tax, criticizing Brewer’s decision to expand Medicaid under Obamacare, and associating himself with the social conservative supporters of a bill Brewer vetoed that would have allowed businesses and individuals to refuse services to LGBT people on religious grounds. DuVal is shining a spotlight on that right-wing agenda, hoping to overcome political headwinds by depicting Ducey as a governor who’d be even more conservative than Brewer.

Idaho governor

If the Idaho gubernatorial contest came down to which candidate had the best name, Republican Gov. Butch Otter would best Democrat A. J. Balukoff in a landslide. Otter is still likely to win given the state’s deep Republican roots, but a Public Policy Polling survey this month gave the governor just a 4-point lead over Balukoff, 39 to 35 percent. Moreover, PPP found that Otter’s approval rating is underwater, with only 36 percent of voters approving of his job performance against 49 percent who disapprove.

But it appears that Otter’s surprisingly small lead can be chalked up to dissatisfaction with the governor among conservatives. According to PPP, 71 percent of undecided voters in the race backed Mitt Romney in 2012. While Balukoff voted for Romney as well, it’s hard to see those voters breaking for a Democrat in a year like this one. Still, Otter’s weak numbers were enough to prompt the Republican Governors Association to drop six figures on the race earlier this month.

Oregon governor

Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber has led GOP challenger Dennis Richardson in every poll save one, but his numbers are relatively weak for a Democrat in Oregon. According to RealClearPolitics’ polling average, Kitzhaber leads Richardson by just 9.7 points, and he’s polling below 50 percent.

What’s more, there hasn’t been a public poll of the race since the revelation this month that Kitzhaber’s fiancée, Cylvia Hayes, committed marriage fraud more than a decade ago. Shortly after that bit of history came to light, the Oregon GOP filed an ethics complaint against the first couple, suggesting that they may have violated conflict of interest rules when Hayes won consulting contracts with groups that aim to shape state policy.

Kansas’ second congressional district

Former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor may not be the only member of the House Republican Leadership to sustain a stunning defeat this year. Politico reported earlier this month that House GOP conference vice chairwoman Rep. Lynn Jenkins is seeking cash from fellow House Republicans to shore up her campaign amid internal polling numbers that show her with only a small lead over Democratic challenger Margie Wakefield.

Republicans fear that Jenkins could fall victim to the anti-GOP backlash that has endangered Gov. Sam Brownback and Sen. Pat Roberts. Jenkins’ district, Kansas’ second, is also more liberal than it was when she won the seat in 2008. After redistricting, the district now includes all of the college town of Lawrence, from which Wakefield hails.

The second district is no stranger to election night curveballs. Few outside observers gave Democrat Nancy Boyda a chance to defeat Rep. Jim Ryun in 2006, but Boyda ousted the incumbent by 4 points after running a dogged grass-roots campaign. Two years later, most handicappers expected Boyda to win reelection, with polls showing her handily defeating Jenkins. But Jenkins nevertheless pulled off a 5-point victory in November. Could she now be on the receiving end of a similar shocker?

By Luke Brinker

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