It happens every four years. The political party on the defensive tries to portray the gubernatorial, House and Senate races in off-year elections as individual races without a unifying theme. The party with the whip hand tries to portray these races as a national referendum on an important issue or on an unpopular president.
That’s happening again this year. But whether these races are national or local, several statewide contests will have national importance. Here is an observer’s guide to some that may matter most:
• Arizona governor. The last three governors of the state were women, one Democratic and two Republican. Of the 14 governors since mid-century, seven were Republicans and seven were Democrats. Three Arizonans, one Democrat who was not nominated, two Republicans who were, have run for president in the past half-century.
All that suggests the state is a model of political balance. It is not. Since the middle of the 20th century the state has voted Republican in every presidential election but one (1996, when Bill Clinton defeated Robert J. Dole).
But that does not mean it is not a bellwether. The state may have championed a restrictive immigration bill in 2010 but Arizona may be only a decade and a half from being a majority Hispanic state. Right now, nine Republicans and one Democrat are seeking their parties’ gubernatorial nomination. The Republicans are emphasizing business and development, the Democrat is courting gays and Latinos, both aggrieved by Republican initiatives.
This gubernatorial race may signal how Arizona, and perhaps America, will lean in the future.
• Iowa senator. Tom Harkin has been an unbending oak in Iowa politics for a generation, first as a crusading House member, later as a liberal stalwart in the Senate. He’s retiring. The race to fill his spot is important, and not only because the destiny of every Democratic-held Senate seat is important.
The issue here is the political profile of Iowa, the site of the first presidential caucus in 2016. The state’s gubernatorial race won’t tell us much significant. The incumbent, Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, is running for his sixth term — if he wins he’d be positioned to be the longest-serving governor in American history — and so the gubernatorial race is less about issues than it is about Mr. Branstad.
The focus instead is on the GOP Senate primary, with special attention on whether the nominee is identified with what are known in Iowa as “Liberty Republicans,” who are basically members of the Tea Party, or with party regulars. The resolution of this contest — one of the candidates is a woman who says she has experience castrating hogs, positioning her perfectly to cut pork — will provide insights about the character of the Republican caucuses a year from January.
• Illinois governor. Anything unusual that happens in a president’s home state is important — and a Bruce Rauner victory in the gubernatorial race in Illinois this fall would send an especially powerful message.
Mr. Rauner, who owns a share of the Pittsburgh Steelers, is the former chairman of a private equity firm in Chicago. He is a novice to elective politics and his is a traditional Republican profile, emphasizing business values, government efficiency, reduced spending and lower taxes. To that he has added a vow to cut the state’s minimum wage.
His opponent is Gov. Pat Quinn, a traditional Illinois Democrat with traditional experience (six years as lieutenant governor, four as treasurer) but an untraditional Democratic problem — opposition from unions, in large measure because of his support for a state pension plan that undermines public employees’ retirement plans.
All this puts a key political force, organized labor, in a difficult position, chary of the Republican challenger and skeptical of the Democratic incumbent. Mr. Quinn’s job approval numbers provide no comfort for the governor.
This race will reveal more than who sits in the governor’s chair in Springfield. It will indicate whether the Democrats’ populist themes (increase millionaires’ taxes and keep the minimum wage above the federal level) or the Republicans’ populist themes (cut taxes, improve the commercial climate) prevail among alienated voters in a big state, providing a hint of which campaign strategies might be effective in the 2016 presidential race.
• Florida governor. Once again in 2012, the struggle for Florida’s 29 electoral votes, tied with New York as the third biggest prize in American presidential politics, was close — and, for a time, unresolved. In the end, Barack Obama prevailed, the final count giving him a victory with just a fraction over 50 percent of the vote.
With California voting Democratic the last six times, New York going Democratic the last seven times and Texas going Republican the last eight elections in a row, Florida remains the most significant swing state, with the parties splitting Florida’s electoral votes over the last six elections. So Florida will loom large in both parties’ 2016 political calculus.
With no Senate race this year, the battle for the governor’s office is the best indicator of Florida’s mood.
The incumbent is embattled GOP Gov. Rick Scott, and his possible opponent is a former Republican governor himself, Charlie Crist, who was upset in the 2010 U.S. Senate primary by Marco Rubio, now a possible presidential candidate. Mr. Crist ran in that year’s general election anyway, finishing second as an independent. Two years later he joined the Democratic Party.
Here the principal issue is health care. Republicans have strong majorities in both houses of the legislature, and when state lawmakers blocked the expansion of Medicaid they provided an opening for Mr. Crist to charge that Mr. Scott was responsible for a situation where “six people in Florida die every day as a result.” For his part, Mr. Scott and his allies have loosed attacks against Mr. Crist for his support of Obamacare.
On television and on the Internet, the health battle is raging. Both parties believe health care is a formidable weapon for their side.
In a state with $192 billion in annual gross hospital patient revenues, according to the American Hospital Directory, just about even with the far larger Texas, which has about 7 million more people, and vastly outpacing New York, with about the same population and only $147 billion in gross revenues, there are few more important issues in Florida. As a result there are few better indicators of the potency of the parties’ health care profiles as a 2016 presidential issue.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (email@example.com, 412-263-1890).