With the control of the Senate at stake, the maxim “all politics is local” could come roaring back in several key contests.
Though that truism has been fading in recent years in an increasingly nationalized political environment, a number of state-specific issues — and national ones that resonate particularly strongly in some corners of the country — could matter as much as moods on ObamaCare and the economy in some places.
Here are five local issues that are playing big roles in Senate races this year — and could help determine which party holds the Senate this fall.
North Carolina: Education
State House Speaker Thom Tillis’s (R) active tenure in state politics has been a major campaign issue, with Democrats hammering him especially hard on education issues.
Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) and her allies spent millions over the summer on TV ads attacking Tillis for not raising teacher pay while giving tax cuts to businesses. He recently helped push through an increase to statewide teacher pay — a nominal victory — but it came at the expense of an extended and nasty special legislative session that cost him campaign and fundraising time and hurt him in the polls.
“In North Carolina, any state issues there only help Democrats. The session lasted forever for Tillis,” said one Democratic strategist involved in the race.
“Education in North Carolina is big,” conceded another national Republican.
Colorado: Fracking & Personhood
Each Senate candidate in Colorado is struggling with a local, and controversial, issue that could hurt his chances in a tight race.
Sen. Mark Udall (D) has been put in a tough spot by ballot initiatives that would allow local communities to ban fracking and limit where fracking would be allowed throughout the state. After avoiding taking a stance for months Udall eventually came out against the two initiatives, splitting with the environmentalists whose support he needs in the race. Republican outside groups have been on the air touting Rep. Cory Gardner’s (R) opposition and pushing Udall to take a stand.
“He's definitely in this precarious position where he gets a ton of environmental money, and as a result is trying to straddle the fence on tracking,” said one national Republican strategist of Udall. “And the majority of voters he wants to pick up support it, but he doesn't want to inflame the Boulder folks who oppose it.”
Gardner has also had to squirm on another issue: Personhood. Colorado voters will once again vote this fall on whether to give fertilized eggs the same rights as human beings, a push from anti-abortion activists that has repeatedly failed at the ballot box.
The congressman was once a vocal supporter of the measure but has since flipped on the issue, saying he now agrees with opponents’ concerns that the law could ban not just abortion but some forms of birth control as well. Democrats have been pounding him with ads highlighting his previous support.
Alaska: Land Use
In a state where parochial issues often dominate, Democrats have been looking to highlight Alaska Senate primary front-runner Dan Sullivan’s (R) push when he was commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources to streamline land permits in the state.
The push became controversial in Alaska as opponents warned that the new permitting process would bar public input on the awarding of general-use land and fishing permits, a big issue in a state where hunting and fishing are an integral part of life.
A super-PAC backing Sen. Mark Begich (D) has been airing ads attacking Sullivan for supporting “special-interest government,” spots that may be designed to hurt him in the primary with libertarian-leaning Republicans as much as in the general election.
“The local issue we're hurt by in Alaska is that hunting bill that Begich hit Sullivan for,” said one Republican involved in the race.
Kentucky & West Virginia: Coal
President Obama’s push for tighter coal production standards, known colloquially by opponents as his “war on coal,” has hurt Democrats throughout the region.
The issue has given Republicans a leg up West Virginia’s open-seat Senate race and has helped Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in his hard-fought battle against Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D).
McConnell and Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) have been on the air tying their opponents, Grimes and West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant (D), to the unpopular president on the crucial local issue; the Democrats have had to go on the air with their own ads attacking Obama and distancing themselves from the president.
Tennant’s own ad this week showed her literally turning out the lights at the White House, warning what could happen if the state’s production was derailed and promises to stand up to the president.
Republicans are favored in both races, and coal is a big part of why they’re ahead despite their opponents splitting with Obama.