Every election has its surprises — candidates come out of seeming nowhere to score upsets. Think the stunning loss of Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, in his GOP primary in Virginia.
So who will the surprise winners be this November? The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is suddenly pumping $1 million into South Dakota’s Senate race, now that a new poll this week shows a genuine three-way race as support for the favorite, former GOP governor Mike Rounds, fades.
In New Mexico, Democratic incumbent senator Tom Udall appears safe, though polls show him weakening amid signs that Democratic voter turnout will be down. GOP incumbent governor Susana Martinez is heading for a blowout victory over an opponent, Gary King, who accused her of “not having a Latina heart” during a recent appearance. “Landslide reelection races for governor produce low turnout,” Harrison Schmitt, a former Republic senator from New Mexico, once told me. That (plus Obama’s 38 percent approval rating) gives Udall’s opponent, businessman Allen Weh, a chance to pull an upset — especially if he pulls money out of his own wallet for last-minute ads.
What other races could surprise? Out of a group of about 20 possibilities, I’ve picked three below. The decision was based as much on their possible lessons or significance for the future as on their “wow” factor.
Not a single Republican currently represents any of the six New England states in the House. Marilinda Garcia, a 31-year-old state representative from New Hampshire, aims to change that. She is running a plucky campaign against Democratic freshman Annie Kuster, who is almost twice her age. Kuster won her first term in 2012, 50 to 45 percent, on the strength of Barack Obama’s coattails. Running for reelection, she has decided to hide her liberal voting record. She has declined to hold a single town-hall meeting, agreed to only two debates, and has stored up $1 million in cash for attack ads against Garcia — almost all of them focused on abortion and social issues.
Garcia, who is pro-life, told me that it is nonetheless frustrating to be outspent 4 to 1 on television over an issue that is involved in less than 2 percent of the roll-call votes that Kuster casts in Congress. “She wants that to be the entire campaign,” Garcia said, “while I travel every day and talk to small-business owners who have to drop health-care coverage due to Obamacare or have to buy a brand-new tractor to comply with a very small EPA regulatory change.”
Garcia, an accomplished harp player who has also earned a master’s degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School, would be the freshest face possible for the Republican party. Despite her smaller campaign budget, she is making an impact. Who is ahead pretty much depends on which of two statewide independent polls you give most credence to. The poll run by WMUR-TV and the University of New Hampshire this week has Garcia leading 41 to 37 percent. But the survey published at the same time by New England College gives Kuster a 50–38 percent edge. Much of the difference can be explained by different interpretations of just who will actually vote. What is certain is that Kuster’s campaign is suddenly acting as if the race has closed. Her campaign manager sent out a statement this week saying that her lead had been “erased” and that the race was “a pure toss up.”
Hawaii is perhaps the most Democratic of all the states. Barack Obama won 71 percent of the vote there in 2012, and only one Republican serves in the 25-member state senate. But a three-way race for governor presents the GOP with an opportunity. Democrat David Ige defeated unpopular governor Neil Abercrombie in the Democratic primary this year, but he has struggled to separate himself from Abercrombie’s record of tax hikes and service cutbacks.
Republican Duke Aiona served two terms as lieutenant governor of Hawaii under Linda Lingle, who was only the second Republican ever elected the state’s chief executive since statehood in 1959. Aiona lost to Abercrombie by a 3-to-2 ratio in 2010, but since then his criticisms of state government have gained credibility. The latest RealClearPolitics average of polls shows Ige with 40 percent, Aiona with 38, and 9 going to Mufi Hannemann, a former Honolulu mayor running as an independent.
Aiona is certainly a moderate Republican, but he has released compelling position papers spelling out how he would right the state’s financial boat without raising taxes as well as address the state’s burgeoning homeless problem — the worst in the nation, by some measures.
Republican Lee Terry was elected to the House from Omaha in 1998 to a seat once held by Howard Buffett, the father of uber-investor Warren Buffett. But Terry won in part on the strength of his pledge to serve only three consecutive terms in Congress. But only five months after winning election, he changed his mind on the term limit, saying he could better serve his constituents without it.
Ever since, a sizable chunk of his district’s independent voters have looked at him askance. In 2012, Terry won reelection with only 51 percent of the vote, even as Mitt Romney carried his district with 53 percent.
Since then, Terry has moved leftward in his composite conservative rating by National Journal, falling from 77 percent in 2011 to only 58 percent in 2013. That led him to underperform over a poorly financed GOP challenger in this year’s primary.
Although his seat was rated “likely Republican” by various pundits for much of the summer, Terry has seen the gap between him and Democratic state senator Brad Ashford consistently close. An upset may be in the making.
— John Fund is national-affairs correspondent for NRO.