Originally in The Hill
October 25, 2020

The battle for control of the White House this year will break every spending record anyone has bothered to keep. The fight for power in Congress will cost billions more.

But below the surface, high-stakes contests are underway across the nation, from the state house to city hall. Here are ten races to keep an eye on in November:

Alaska’s House of Representatives

Republicans hold 23 of 40 seats in Alaska’s state House of Representatives in what should be a clear governing majority backing Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R). But in practice, a handful of recalcitrant Republicans have joined Democrats and independents to form a coalition that keeps Dunleavy in check.

The coalition has so infuriated national Republicans that major outside groups funneled $200,000 into primary challenges against sitting Republican incumbents.

Three Republican coalition members lost their bids for renomination in August, one quit earlier this year and one died in a plane crash, putting those who stuck with Dunleavy in position to reclaim control. But there are strange things done in the midnight sun, and nothing in Alaska is ever guaranteed until the votes are counted. 

Portland mayor’s race

This summer’s protests for racial justice were mostly peaceful — but not in Portland, Ore., where activists clashed with federal agents and where supporters of President Trump staged their own provocative rallies. The clashes got so bad that Mayor Ted Wheeler (D) moved out of his condominium to escape the protests.

Wheeler finished the May primary with 49 percent of the vote, just shy of what he needed to win a second term outright — right before the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, which sparked Portland’s tumultuous summer of rage.

Now Wheeler faces a challenge from Sarah Iannarone, an educator and activist at Portland State University making her second run for office. More than half of Portland residents say the city is headed on the wrong track, and a recent poll showed Wheeler and Iannarone statistically tied, with about a quarter of voters undecided.

Washington secretary of state and lieutenant governor

Democrats are firmly in control of Washington State government, where a Republican last won the governorship in 1980. But Republicans maintain a foothold in the secretary of state’s office, where they have held power since 1965.

That streak, kept alive by incumbent Kim Wyman (R), is coming under serious pressure this year from state Rep. Gael Tarleton (D), a former Seattle port commissioner who scored 43 percent in this summer’s all-party primary against Wyman’s 51 percent. Wyman’s fate will be the latest sign of just how large the population of true ticket-splitting voters remains.

In the race for lieutenant governor, two Democrats finished atop a crowded field in the primary. Rep. Denny Heck (D) led the way, a rare instance of a member of Congress coming home for what appears to be a less influential job — Washington’s lieutenant governor holds a few ceremonial roles and runs the state Senate.

But Heck — or state Sen. Marko Liias, the other Democrat who made it through the primary — may be in line for a promotion, if a future Biden administration were to tap Gov. Jay Inslee (D) for a Cabinet post or some kind of climate czar role.

Inslee firmly denies he’s interested in going back to the other Washington, and Heck insists he’s not in it for the prospects of an upgrade to the governor’s mansion.

North Carolina attorney general

North Carolina voters love kicking out their incumbents. In just the past few decades, Sens. Kay Hagan (D), Elizabeth Dole (R), Lauch Faircloth (R) and Terry Sanford (D) have lost reelection bids, and Sen. Thom Tillis (R) is trailing his Democratic challenger this year.

But for all the tumult, North Carolina seems happy to stick with a Democrat in the attorney general’s office. No Republican has won election to the job in 120 years. The only Republican to hold the post in that span, James Carson, was appointed in 1974; he lost the subsequent special election.

This year, incumbent Josh Stein (D) is seeking a second term against Jim O’Neill (R), the district attorney in Forsyth County. Stein won the job by a margin of just 20,000 votes, or 0.4 percentage points, in 2016.

West Virginia governor

The Mountaineer State hasn’t elected a Republican governor since Cecil Underwood came out of retirement in 1996 — and that includes Gov. Jim Justice, who won election as a Democrat in 2016 and switched parties the following year.

Justice’s apostasy enraged national Democrats, who promptly dumped their book of opposition research they had compiled on their erstwhile colleague. And he wasn’t fully embraced by Republicans in the legislature, with whom he spent most of his first term fighting.

But in a state they once ruled with an iron fist, Democrats struggled to come up with a candidate. Justice is likely to beat out Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango (D) and several minor party contenders to win a second term — this time wearing the other team’s uniform.

Maricopa County elections

Maricopa County is the largest county in America that President Trump carried in 2016. Four years later, the mood in Phoenix and its surrounding suburbs has changed dramatically.

Republicans held a 150,000-voter advantage in Maricopa County in 2016, an edge that has been cut almost in half. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D) won the county in 2018, and Democrats made gains that year in state legislative races.

This year, Democrats are contesting four of the five seats on the County Board of Supervisors — the fifth seat is held by an incumbent Democrat who does not face a Republican challenger. Democrats have the opportunity to oust County Attorney Allister Adel (R), and Sheriff Paul Penzone (D), who beat the notorious Joe Arpaio in 2016, is a favorite for reelection.

The Phoenix television market has been the epicenter of the presidential contest, where candidates and outside groups have advertised more than any other market in America. If Maricopa turns blue, it will bring the rest of Arizona with it.

Ohio Supreme Court

Ohio voters took control of the decennial redistricting process out of the legislature’s hands a few years ago and handed it to an independent commission. When that commission meets, the maps it produces will surely face legal challenges that will work their way up to the state Supreme Court.

The makeup of that court is on the ballot this year, as Justices Judith French and Sharon Kennedy seek reelection. While ostensibly nonpartisan, French and Kennedy each ran — unopposed — in Republican primaries. Their challengers, former Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner and Cuyahoga County Judge John O’Donnell, won Democratic primaries.

A Democratic sweep of both races would hand Democrats a four-to-three majority on the high court. It would be the first Democratic majority in more than three decades. Outside groups have poured money into the race in anticipation of legal battles ahead.

California Proposition 22

When California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D) shepherded Assembly Bill 5 through the legislature last year, she opened the flood gates through which big tech companies have poured more than $180 million this year.

The law, signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), classifies gig workers as employees of the companies for which they work. Those companies — led by Uber, Lyft and DoorDash — paid to get Proposition 22 on the ballot, which would permanently classify those workers as independent contractors.

Unions have poured about $10 million into the opposition campaign to save AB 5. But California voters are inundated by advertising — including when they open one of those gig apps on their mobile phones — in favor of the proposition.

What happens in California today frequently happens across the country tomorrow. The future of the gig economy may be on the ballot.

Illinois constitutional amendment

Two of the richest men in Illinois are fighting an increasingly expensive battle over how much they should be taxed.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D), an heir to the Hyatt Hotel fortune, has dumped more than $56 million into the campaign to amend the state constitution to allow Illinois to institute a graduated income tax. Ken Griffin, the billionaire hedge fund manager and Republican donor, has spent more than $46 million against the amendment

There haven’t been any public polls released recently, but a poll in March conducted by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute found Illinois voters favored the idea by a two-to-one margin.

Expect the measure to be a hot topic the next time the extended Pritzker family gets together for dinner. Pritzker’s cousin Jennifer has contributed half a million dollars against the amendment.

Anti-Racist Ballot Measures
 
State constitutions are bulky, unwieldy documents, amended so often over the years that more than a few have some pretty antiquated language left over from the long-distant past. Voters in five states will have the chance to change some of that outdated thinking through constitutional amendments on the ballot this year.
 
In Alabama, voters will be asked to give the legislature the power to remove some racist language that requires schools to be segregated by race. That provision has not been enforced since the 1960s, but it remains in the state’s founding document.
 
Mississippi voters will be asked to end a Jim Crow-era provision that requires a candidate for governor to win a majority of the 122 state House districts, along with a majority of the popular vote. The provision was implemented back in 1890, as a fail-safe against the possibility of a Black candidate winning the governorship simply by winning the popular vote.
 
The Magnolia State will also ask voters to ratify a new flag, a design that includes the state flower, after the legislature retired an old version that included the Confederate battle flag.
 
Nebraska and Utah voters have the chance to remove provisions from their constitutions that still allow slavery as a punishment for a criminal conviction. Neither state has actually used the provision allowing slavery for more than a century, but the outdated language is still there.
 
And the state with the longest official name will ask voters to chop off some rather unfortunate wording. Voters in the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations — that’s its official name — will decide whether to remove the Providence Plantations part.
 
Utah voters also have the chance to be a little more inclusive in their own constitution. The current document alludes several times to men exclusively: It says all men have an inherent right to life and liberty, and it refers to some state office holders as “he.” That language would be changed to be more gender-inclusive, substituting words like “persons” for more specific words like “men.”