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Juan Williams: Let the midterm battles commence

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In modern politics, Congress’ August recess is the starting line for a 90-day drive to midterm elections.

The coming contests will feature one key race and three intriguing trends to watch.

The key race is the Senate election in Louisiana between incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) and Rep. Bill Cassidy (R).

A third candidate — Rob Maness, favored by some Tea Party supporters — is a relatively minor figure who could have a major impact.  The electoral system in Louisiana requires a candidate to get over 50 percent of the vote before being declared the winner. Polls have the Landrieu-Cassidy contest so close that a runoff is likely. We may not know whether the GOP netted the seats it needs for a Senate majority until December.

The New York Times’ “Upshot” blog currently gives Republicans “about a 54 percent chance of gaining a majority” in the Senate. Nate Silver, chief prognosticator of FiveThirtyEight.com, said last week the GOP is “slightly favored” to win back the Senate.

That makes the Louisiana race the number one political race to watch.

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But every Senate race this year is operating under the power of a never-before-seen, mystery factor.

For the first time, a Washington Post poll has found that a majority of Americans disapprove of their own representative in the House. Congress is at an historic high for disapproval, nearly 80 percent of Americans say they are “dissatisfied” with the political system, according to the Wall Street Journal, and all polls put the Republican brand in Congress at an unprecedented low.

This is the first intriguing trend to watch this election cycle.

Absent that mystery factor, political history points to major losses for Democrats. The party holding the White House during a second term typically loses seats, especially when most voters disapprove of the President’s job performance. That is the case now: In a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll released last week, 41 percent of adults approved of President Obama’s performance while 54 percent disapproved.

But the poll also found that “Congressional Republicans fared even worse, with 54 percent of adults viewing them negatively and just 19 percent expressing positive views.”

That led the Journal to conclude “there are few signs at this point the [GOP] will enjoy a wave like the one that swept Democrats back to power in 2006 and the Republicans back to the House majority in 2010.”

Similarly the New York Times’ “Upshot” blog concludes the best weapon for Democrats in the midterms is “the unpopularity of the Republican Party.”

The uncertainty over control of the Senate leads to a second key trend worth watching: the civil war inside the GOP.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), head of the “Establishment” faction in the House, is hoping to pick up enough seats to create a governing majority that will allow him to ignore the current hard-line Tea Party faction of about 15 members who undercut his efforts to pass most bills.

That makes the extent of the GOP’s gains in the House – if any – the second most important consequence of the midterm elections.

The third trend deserving attention is the biggest: Democrats’ efforts to stop the GOP at the state level from gerrymandering the congressional district map. The GOP’s gerrymandering has cemented their advantage in the House despite 1.4 million more voters favoring Democrats in House elections in 2012.

In this cycle, Democrats have some grounds for optimism about winning back control in the states.

Three state races for governor are bunched together at the top of the Democrats’ target list.

In Pennsylvania, incumbent Republican Governor Tom Corbett was swept into office on the Tea Party wave of 2010 along with a GOP majority in the state legislature. However, the policies that Corbett Republicans have pushed have been wildly unpopular with Pennsylvanians. Specifically, Corbett’s deep budget cuts to education funding and his support for voter identification laws are hurting him.

Corbett also famously said at a press conference that he would not switch his position on mandatory ultrasounds for women seeking abortions because women could “just close their eyes.”

The latest Real Clear Politics average of polls in the Keystone State finds Corbett trailing his Democratic opponent Tom Wolff by twenty points.

In Florida, incumbent Republican Governor Rick Scott is in a statistical dead heat with Charlie Crist, his predecessor. Crist, the former Republican governor now turned Democrat, is hammering Scott’s support of restrictive voter identification laws. Scott is also accused of “purging” likely Democratic voters from the rolls following the 2012 election.

With the help of a Republican state legislature, Scott has pursued an aggressive anti-abortion agenda including signing a law this year that outlaws abortion at any point in a woman’s pregnancy if a doctor says her fetus can survive outside the womb.

The biggest, shiniest prize for Democrats this November is in the most unlikely state – Kansas, among the reddest of the red states. Republican Governor Sam Brownback is in the fight of his political life against Democrat Paul Davis, a Kansas state legislator.

The latest RCP average has Brownback leading by just two points. A July poll from SurveyUSA found Davis leading by eight points. Brownback has pursued a hard-line aggressive Tea Party Republican agenda. In June, 100 current and former elected Republican officials in Kansas — calling themselves “Republicans for Kansas Values” — publicly endorsed Democrat Davis.

Democrats might not be able to keep the GOP from winning back the Senate. Their consolation prize just might be winning the governors’ mansions and putting themselves in a strong position heading into the next round of redistricting.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.