The big question of the 2014 midterm elections — other than, "Eric Cantor lost?!" — is which party will emerge with control of the U.S. Senate. A number of Western states will host Senate races this year — Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Alaska — but only three will be hotly contested, and only those will figure into the national partisan power struggle. Those races are for seats currently occupied by Democrats in Colorado, Montana and Alaska. Colorado's Mark Udall is the most likely to hold on, while in Montana and Alaska, incumbents John Walsh and Mark Begich are extremely vulnerable.
Republicans need to pick off six sitting Democrats to take a majority in the Senate. Only seven Democrats seem vulnerable, and to varying degrees, making races like those in Montana and Alaska — where Republicans have a good shot at victory — crucial to both parties.
Here's a closer look at the candidates facing off in these three states and some of the more intriguing aspects of their campaigns:
First-term Sen. Mark Udall is being challenged by Republican Rep. Cory Gardner, who both establishment and Tea Party conservatives in Colorado seem to be united behind. Climate change and energy look like they'll figure big in this race, and the obligatory attacks are already being lobbed at Udall from outside groups for his support of Obamacare. Gardner is going after Udall for not taking a position on attempts by towns across Colorado to ban fracking within their limits, which Gardner sees as economic drains. The issue is a thorny one for Udall, who risks being labeled a job-killing liberal if he supports the bans, and alienating lefty enclaves like Boulder if he opposes them.
Another sign that the politics of energy are less clearcut in Colorado than in fossil fuel meccas like Wyoming, is Udall's reaction to the carbon rules for existing power plants recently announced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The rules, announced just as campaigns were getting revved up, were widely expected to be a political burden for vulnerable Democrats. Udall, however, reacted to the announcement by touting his support for the EPA's plan. Colorado has already transitioned many of its big coal plants to natural gas, as required by a law that Gardner supported when he was in the state legislature. (Though Gardner has also expressed skepticism about manmade climate change.)
Democrat John Walsh was appointed to fill one of Montana's U.S. Senate seats when Max Baucus left to become ambassador to China. Since he didn't win the seat, and has only occupied it since February, he enjoys fewer advantages than most incumbents. And Montana Senate races have lately been hard-fought nail biters, with Democrats eeking out victories by the narrowest of margins. Republican challenger Rep. Steve Daines is apparently running a savvy campaign, modeled in part on Democratic Sen. Jon Tester's successful run against Denny Rehberg in 2012. Early projections favor a Daines victory.
In a state that is bullish on coal — and sits on top of a lot of unmined seams — Daines is rallying against the EPA's carbon rules for their potential to hobble Montana's coal industry. Interestingly, Walsh is making little effort to distance himself from the Obama Administration on the issue, saying he supports gradual efforts to reduce use of fossil fuels and energy consumption.
Republicans have good reason to feel optimistic about their chances of unseating Democrat Mark Begich, who beat incumbent Republican Ted Stevens in 2008 by just a few thousand votes, despite the fact that Stevens became a convicted felon just before the election for lying about and failing to disclose political gifts. Begich's slim margin of victory spoke both to Alaska's unusual loyalty to Stevens, and to the fact that it's a solidly red state, barely inclined to elect Democrats under even extraordinary circumstances.
Begich's Republican challenger won't be decided until an August primary. There are three contenders: Lieutenant Gov. Mead Treadwell, Matt Sullivan, Alaska's attorney general under Sarah Palin and a former assistant U.S. secretary of state, and Joe Miller, the Tea Partier who, riding a Sarah Palin endorsement, nearly took down Sen. Lisa Murkowski in 2010.
Sullivan or Treadwell are likely to win the primary, but what might matter more for the election is whether Miller runs as an Independent. If he does, he might siphon enough votes away from the Republican candidate to deliver Begich another unlikely victory.
Cally Carswell is a contributing editor for High Country News. She is based in Santa Fe, New Mexico and tweets @callycarswell.
This article was originally published in High Country News (hcn.org). The author is solely responsible for the content.