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Midterm Elections 2014: 20 races to watch on election night

When the midterm election results start trickling in Tuesday night, there will be 36 Senate races, 36 governor's races, 435 House races, and more to keep track of — a daunting task even for political aficionados who've been tracking everything closely.

So we've narrowed it down to a list of 20 results that will really matter. Some are quite close and could determine party control, while others speak to important larger issues at play. We'll start with the seven most important races for determining the Senate outcome, and move on from there.

1) & 2) Iowa and Colorado Senate races

Joni Ernst Cory Gardner

Joni Ernst and Cory Gardner (Tom Williams and Douglas Graham, CQ-Roll Call Group / Getty)

Democrats probably need to win both the Iowa and Colorado Senate races to keep a Senate majority — but in the final polling, they trail in both. In each, Democratic attempts to portray the GOP nominee as extremist haven't seemed to work.

In Iowa, state Sen. Joni Ernst (R) has an appealing personal background as a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard. Though she's held far-right views on several issues, including nullification of federal laws and impeaching President Obama, she's attempted to moderate her image since winning her primary. Meanwhile, Rep. Bruce Braley (D) was caught on camera making fun of Sen. Chuck Grassley for not having a law degree, and has been criticized for his behavior in a strange episode involving a neighbor's chickens walking onto his property.

Meanwhile, in Colorado, when Sen. Mark Udall (D) attacked Rep. Cory Gardner (R) for supporting a "personhood" amendment that would outlaw some forms of contraception, Gardner responded by switching his position and arguing that birth control should be available over the counter. Lately, he's been sending out mailers with an image of birth control pills on them to tout this position.

Democrats have hoped that the Colorado polls in particular are under-counting their supporters, but right now, both Ernst and Gardner look like they're in strong positions. If either wins, a GOP Senate majority is highly likely. If both win, Republicans would have to lose in two deep red states to miss out on a Senate takeover.

3) Kansas Senate: Greg Orman (I) vs. Sen. Pat Roberts (R)

greg orman

Greg Orman. (Orman for US Senate)

The bizarre and unexpectedly competitive race in Kansas pits longtime 78-year-old incumbent Pat Roberts against independent Greg Orman, an entrepreneur. Orman has said that he'll caucus with whichever party wins a majority. If he's serious about that, the outcome of his race will only matter if the Senate ends up evenly divided (50 seats won by Republicans and 49 won by Democrats). However, his positions and financial backers seem to indicate he'd be more at home in the Democratic caucus.

Kansas looks to be one of the closest races in the country — the current HuffPost Pollster average has Roberts and Orman exactly tied. More recent polls have given an edge to Orman, but it's hard to predict how his odd independent status might swing the results. For instance, his lack of a party-funded turnout operation could hurt him. Then again, his lack of association with the Democratic Party might lead Kansas swing voters to back him, even as swing voters in other states seem to be backing Republicans.

4) Alaska Senate: Sen. Mark Begich (D) vs. Dan Sullivan (R)

Dan Sullivan Alaska

Dan Sullivan. (Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call / Getty)

Two Democratic incumbents in very conservative states, Senators Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, have gotten basically nothing but bad polling news lately, and they look extremely likely to lose. So Democrats' last hope for a deep red state survivor may be Mark Begich of Alaska. Polling of the race has been all over the place — most models conclude that his GOP challenger Dan Sullivan has gained a small advantage, but Begich has had several polls showing him ahead lately too.

However, a recent analysis by Nate Silver found that polling of Alaska tends to be consistently more favorable to Democrats than the state's actual results. So Begich will have to hope that his investment in "an expensive, sophisticated political field operation that reaches into tiny villages," as the Washington Post's Phil Rucker described it, pays off. Whatever the case, we likely won't know the results for some time — it took two weeks before Begich was declared the victor in his 2008 election.

5) Georgia Senate: Michelle Nunn (D) vs. David Perdue (R)

Michelle Nunn

(Bill Clark, CQ-Roll Call Group/Getty)

In mid-October, seven consecutive Georgia Senate polls were released showing either a tie or Democrat Michelle Nunn ahead — boosting Democratic hopes that they could snatch away this GOP-held open seat. After all, Georgia's been changing demographically, giving the Democrats somewhat better odds than they've had there in the past. Since then, however, there have been nine polls without a Nunn lead.

If neither major candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, the race will proceed to a runoff — in January. That likely means that Democrats will have a tougher time turning out their voters. It also means that if control of the Senate hangs in the balance, the race would be nationalized — and Georgia's conservative-leaning electorate would be repeatedly informed that if they vote for Nunn, they'd be ensuring that Harry Reid would remain Senate Majority Leader.

6) & 7) North Carolina and New Hampshire Senate races

Kay Hagan Scott Brown

Sen. Kay Hagan (D) and former Sen. Scott Brown (R). (Bill Clark, CQ-Roll Call Group / Getty)

Republicans are leading the polls in most of the races we've listed so far. But in North Carolina and New Hampshire, Democratic incumbents Kay Hagan and Jeanne Shaheen are still holding on to narrow leads.

In North Carolina, Hagan has managed to defy the national trend so far, posting consistent leads of a couple points — perhaps because her opponent Thom Tillis is the speaker of North Carolina's unpopular House of Representatives and has been attacked over his party's handling of education funding. Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, Shaheen has led more consistently than any other Democratic Senate candidate on this list — but hasn't been able to put the race clearly out of reach for her challenger Scott Brown.

These races would make the difference between the great GOP Senate night the polls currently point toward and an outstanding one. They are the upper limit of possible Republican gains — and wins in them could give the party a majority of 55 seats and a net gain of 10 seats overall, a clear landslide that would make Democrats' attempts to take the chamber back next year more difficult.

8) & 9) The conservative governors: Wisconsin and Kansas

Scott Walker and Sam Brownback

Scott Walker and Sam Brownback. (Darren Hauck and Andrew Burton / Getty)

Both elected during the tea party wave of 2010, Govs. Scott Walker and Sam Brownback enacted two different conservative agendas once in office. Walker successfully limited the collective bargaining rights of public employees, while Brownback signed on to a massive tax cut that he argued would economically stimulate Kansas.

Now, both face tough reelection battles. Walker survived a labor-backed attempt to recall him in 2012 but now faces businesswoman Mary Burke, a former executive at the Trek Bicycle Corporation. As the Washington Post's Robert Costa wrote, a Walker loss would likely put an early end to any plans he might have to run for president in 2016. But though the polls have been close lately, most show Walker ahead.

Meanwhile, in Kansas, Democratic candidate Paul Davis has criticized Brownback's tax cut as irresponsible, saying it's led to huge revenue shortfalls, lagging job growth, and cuts to the state's bond rating. He's been leading most polls — but Kansas is a very Republican state, so he can't take anything for granted. A win here would suggest to GOP governors that, yes, there is such a thing as too much tax cuts.

10) Florida governor: Rick Scott (R) vs. Charlie Crist (D)

Charlie Crist and Rick Scott at a debate

Charlie Crist and Gov. Rick Scott. (Joe Raedle / Getty)

More money is being spent in Florida than on any other governor's race in the US this year. But the candidates — incumbent Rick Scott (R) and former Gov. Charlie Crist (D) — haven't elicited a ton of enthusiasm from partisans on either side.

Crist quit the Republican Party in 2010 when it became clear he would lose a Senate primary to Marco Rubio. Instead, he ran as an independent and lost, and he has since become a Democrat. He has harshly criticized the Republican party's rightward turn. Scott, a wealthy hospital executive, spent more than $75 million of his own money to barely eke out a victory in 2010. Once in office, he initially cut education spending and emphasized his opposition to Obamacare — but when his popularity plummeted, he reversed course somewhat, as Mother Jones' Stephanie Mencimer wrote.

Crist has criticized Scott's conservative policies on education and the environment, while conservatives have blasted Crist for his opportunistic party switch. During a recent debate, Scott briefly refused to go out on stage unless Crist removed a fan he kept at his podium (Molly Ball of the Atlantic has the backstory on that bizarre incident). The latest HuffPost Pollster average shows this race exactly tied.

11) Massachusetts governor: Martha Coakley (D) vs. Charlie Baker (R)

MA-GOV: Martha Coakley and Charlie Baker

Martha Coakley and Charlie Baker. (Barry Chin / Boston Globe / Getty)

Democrats hoped Martha Coakley, who infamously lost a 2010 Senate special election to Scott Brown, would turn in a stronger performance while heading her party's ticket for governor this year. But her opponent, Republican Charlie Baker — a former state cabinet official and CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care — has surpassed Coakley in the polls, despite the Democratic lean of Massachusetts and the popularity of the state's retiring Democratic governor, Deval Patrick.

Coakley has emphasized her credentials as the state's attorney general, while Baker is stressing his support for welfare reform and portraying himself as a nonpartisan wonk.

12) Maine governor: Paul LePage (R) vs. Mike Michaud (D) vs. Eliot Cutler (I)

Mike Michaud

Mike Michaud. (Carl D. Walsh / MCT / Getty)

Paul LePage is arguably the most far-right governor currently in a solidly blue state, and he's become quite unpopular. Still, he's stayed close to a victory in many polls — because there's been an independent candidate in the race, Eliot Cutler, who's splitting the anti-LePage vote with the Democratic nominee Mike Michaud.

But days ago, Cutler announced that his supporters were free to vote for other candidates if they didn't think he could win. If enough of them do so, Michaud would become the first openly gay governor elected in US history.

13) Rhode Island governor: Gina Raimondo (D) vs. Allan Fung (R)

raimondo

Gina Raimondo. (Friends of Gina Raimondo)

The Rhode Island race is interesting because the Democratic coalition has been split. State Treasurer Gina Raimondo is the party's nominee, but her most notable accomplishment — pushing through a dramatic pension reform package — has made many public employee union members quite angry with her. One poll found that union members actually favored the Republican, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, by a 12-point margin.

The unions themselves haven't gone that far, though the AFL-CIO has backed the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor, as Dylan Matthews wrote.

14) Colorado governor: John Hickenlooper (D) vs. Bob Beauprez (R)

Hickenlooper

Gov. John Hickenlooper (Kathryn Scott Osler / Denver Post / Getty)

In 2012, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) was one of the most popular governors in the country. But when he and the Democrat-controlled legislature pushed through liberal bills on gun control and other issues, his centrist image suffered. A controversy over Hickenlooper's "temporary reprieve" of a convicted murderer who was going to be executed also seems to have hurt him.

Now, challenger Bob Beauprez (R), a former member of Congress, has been close in several recent polls, though still trailing in the average overall. All Colorado voting now takes place by mail, so the election here has been going on for weeks. If Hickenlooper loses, it's another sign that this purple state might not be turning blue as quickly as Democrats hoped.

15) Illinois governor: Pat Quinn (D) vs. Bruce Rauner (R)

Pat Quinn

Gov. Pat Quinn. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty)

For most of 2014, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) looked like he was clearly headed for a defeat. The state's economy was weak, Quinn seemed unable to manage the legislature, and there was a federal probe into one of his administration's programs. But the Democratic leanings of Illinois — and, perhaps, the success of Quinn's attacks on his opponent Bruce Rauner's wealth — seem to have put him back in the hunt.

Rauner has blasted Quinn for the state's economic woes, while Quinn has emphasized his support for increasing the minimum wage and argued that Rauner's budget plan entails "savage cuts."

16) Texas governor: Wendy Davis (D) vs. Greg Abbott (R)

Wendy Davis

Wendy Davis. (Erich Schlegel / Getty)

Wendy Davis is going to lose, and she was always going to lose. But the outcome here will be noteworthy because of the effort from the organizing group Battleground Texas to mobilize more of the state's Democratic voters.

Despite much media discussion of Texas potentially tipping toward the Democrats because of an increasing Hispanic bloc, there's actually no evidence that's taking place — or that it will. Davis and Battleground Texas hoped to start that trend this year. Yet the two most recent polls of the race show her going down in a landslide defeat.

If Davis does perform worse than the Democrats' 2010 nominee Bill White, who lost by 12.7 percentage points in a Republican year, the activists trying to turn Texas blue will be rather demoralized. They'll certainly face questions about whether Davis was the right candidate — or whether the dream of turning Texas blue is just a dream.

17) CA-17: Mike Honda (D) vs. Ro Khanna (D)

Rep. Mike Honda

Rep. Mike Honda. (Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call Group / Getty)

In 2010, California adopted a "top two" electoral system intended to increase electoral competition for incumbents. The state holds one primary where party labels don't matter, and the top two vote-getters overall are pitted against each other in the general. But since the state is liberal overall, one potential way this could play out is that progressive Democrats face more challenges from business-funded, centrist Democrats.

That looks to be what's happening in California's 17th district, where seven-term Rep. Mike Honda is being challenged by Ro Khanna, a 38-year-old former Obama administration official. Khanna has argued that he'll be more pro-business than Honda. Accordingly, he's raised millions from business and Silicon Valley, and has actually outspent the incumbent. There are other issues at play in the increasingly heated race, but if Honda goes down, people who'd prefer more moderate California Democrats will have a model to use going forward.

18) GA-12: John Barrow (D) vs. Rick Allen (R)

Rep. John Barrow

Rep. John Barrow. (Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call Group / Getty)

John Barrow is the sole remaining white Deep South Democrat with a seat in the House of Representatives. And up until now, he's managed to keep winning reelection despite tough national circumstances. In a 2010 cycle that was disastrous for his party, Barrow won by 14 percentage points. After redistricting, his district became tougher for him. But even though Mitt Romney beat President Barack Obama in his district in 2012, Barrow won reelection by 8 percentage points that year.

Now, he's facing construction company owner Rick Allen, and recent polls give Allen a small lead. If Barrow is defeated, it will be yet the latest example of the geographical and partisan polarization that's occurred in the South and the Northeast.

19) AZ-02: Ron Barber (D) vs. Martha McSally (R)

Ron Barber mailer

(Arizona Republican Party via Richard Serlin)

In 2012, after Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) was badly wounded in an assassination attempt, her former district director Ron Barber ran for, and won, her seat. It was always a tough district for Democrats to win, and it got tougher after redistricting. But in 2012, Barber defeated his opponent, retired Air Force Colonel Martha McSally, by less than one percentage point.

McSally is back for a repeat bid this year, and the race has attracted $9.5 million in outside spending — one of the highest for any House race in the country. But in recent days, the race has gotten some attention for an odd attack on Barber from the Arizona Republican Party. They're sending out misleading but technically accurate mailers attacking him for voting for "the terrifying Ryan Budget." It's interesting that, in one of the most hotly contested House races in the country, the GOP feels necessary to attack the Democrat from the left.

20) State legislatures

The contests for state legislature aren't as dramatic and high-profile as governor or Senate races, but they matter a great deal. The GOP's sweeping victories in state legislatures in 2010 helped shape much of the next four years of state policy, even in blue or purple states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Florida.

And they're on track for yet more gains in 2014. "The real power of the rising GOP tide is going to be seen in the state legislatures," Newt Gingrich told the Washington Post's Karen Tumulty recently. "The number of GOP supermajorities after this election will be astounding." Currently, the GOP has full control of 27 state legislatures and controls one chamber of a few more. Slate's Betsy Woodruff mentions possible gains in Iowa, West Virginia, and Kentucky.