Voters in Tuesday's midterm elections will decide who is in control of Congress and cast ballots on a host of divisive issues. UPI File/Kristoffer Tripplaar/Pool | License Photo
WASHINGTON, Oct. 29 (UPI) -- It's easy for voters to check out of midterm elections, especially as partisan gridlock continues to drive approval ratings for Congress and the president into the gutter.
But this Nov. 4, voters across the country face a slate of local, state and national races that will decide who is in control in Congress and whether the nation is able to move forward on a host of divisive issues -- immigration, the minimum wage, climate change and more.
Midterm turnout is historically low -- a third fewer people voted in 2010 than in the presidential election two years later -- and with many pivotal races appearing very close, the stakes are high.
Battle for the Senate
Democrats hold a 55-to-45 seat majority in the Senate, including two independents who caucus with Democrats. For the GOP to wrest control, it needs to flip at least six Democrat-held seats.
Most polls give Republicans a slight edge going into the final week of the campaign, but so many races are so close that the final tally could hinge on runoffs.
Races in nine states could be key: Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Kansas, Iowa, Louisiana, New Hampshire and North Carolina.
Two more years of gridlock?
Some political observers believe that whatever the result, obstructionist politics will continue.
"I see the Democrats playing the exact same role that the Republicans have been playing the past couple of years, just obstructing and obstructing and waiting for it to be 2016," said Marian Currinder, a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University. "They think that even if they lose this fall, they have a good chance of taking the Senate back in 2016."
Democrats see the 2016 election as having many of the same advantages for them as the Republicans are enjoying this year: a favorable map, with just 13 Democrat-held seats to defend, compared to 20 Republican seats, plus the higher voter turnout with more minorities and young people turning up to the polls.
A Republican-majority Senate, led by current Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., would meanwhile find itself in the legislative spotlight. McConnell, should he survive an unexpectedly tough challenge to retain his seat, has been open about his intentions to use must-pass spending legislation to put pressure on President Barack Obama to reduce big-government regulations.
"If we had a chance to have a new agenda in the Senate, to take America in a different direction, we'd be voting on things like approving the Keystone pipeline, which would enable about 20,000 people to go to work very quickly," McConnell said in a recent debate against challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes. "We'd be voting on things like the Environmental Protection Agency, the war on coal, that's cost us 7,000 coal mining jobs during the Obama years."
While most analysts don't predict much movement on major legislation, both parties will come under pressure to continue confirmations of presidential appointments to federal courts and embassy posts, if at a slower clip with Republicans in charge.
But partisan disagreements between the GOP and the president may come to a head if a vacancy should open up on the Supreme Court. Liberals are deeply concerned over the frail health of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who maintains she has no intention of stepping down anytime soon.
Statehouses at stake
Four years ago, when most of the country's current governors were elected, a Republican wave took over 11 statehouses held by Democrats, picking up 63 seats and the majority in the House of Representatives.
That means the same 36 statehouses are up for grabs this fall, in an election environment that is far less one-sided as Republican governors find themselves defending seats in purple or blue states.
With Washington at a standstill, much lawmaking happens at the state level, where governors exert vast influence. Many major policy battles, including fights over raising the minimum wage and labor rights, abortion, marijuana legalization and voter identification are decided -- at least in the early rounds -- by a governor's pen.
Many of those races, too, may come down to a tight margin, including Kansas, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Alaska, Michigan, Maine, Connecticut, Illinois and Florida.
In several states, voters will be able to weigh in directly on hot-button issues that have also fueled individual campaigns.These issues could draw out liberal voters, potentially tipping the outcome in several tight elections where Democrats are trailing Republicans in polls.
Alaska has two measures -- one legalizing recreational marijuana and one raising the minimum wage -- that could prove a boon to Sen. Mark Begich, who has fallen behind Dan Sullivan in most polls. In Florida, a measure legalizing medical marijuana is polling well and is supported by both gubernatorial candidates. That could provide some breathing room for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist against Gov. Rick Scott.
An initiative to raise the state's minimum wage is on the ballot in Arkansas, where Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor is trailing Republican Rep. Tom Cotton by several points in most polls. Despite the partisan fight over the minimum wage in Washington, the issue is popular with voters. None of the 10 minimum wage hikes to come before voters since 2002 has failed.
Recreational marijuana is also on the ballot in Oregon and Washington, D.C., and minimum wage hikes are also before the voters of Nebraska and South Dakota.
In Colorado, voters have rejected so-called "personhood" measures twice before. But the push to define life as beginning at the moment of conception is back on the ballot this fall, and has given Democratic Sen. Mark Udall an opening. He and his opponent, Republican Rep. Cory Gardner, say they oppose the amendment, but Udall has hammered Gardner over his support for similar initiatives in the past.
Personhood, which has never passed in any statewide vote, will also be considered by voters in North Dakota. And in Tennessee, voters will decide whether to add language to the state constitution that would allow the legislature to restrict abortion.
In Washington state, two gun measures are up for a vote. One would require every person purchasing a gun in the state, including private sales, to undergo a background check. The other would ban more extensive background checks than are required by federal law. Officials say they aren't sure what will happen if both pass.
Most expensive midterms
The Center for Responsive Politics projects that nearly $4 billion will be spent on midterm races this year, with another $1 billion spent on ballot issues -- by far the most expensive midterms ever.
In spite of all that spending, or perhaps because of it, voters are showing little interest in the election.
The most recent survey by Gallup found voters have thought less about the election, are less enthusiastic about voting and less motivated to vote this year than either 2010 or 2012. Gallup's poll, taken in late September, found this year's interest level roughly correlates with engagement in 1998, when only 38.1 percent of the voting-eligible population cast ballots, and 2002, which saw 39.5 percent turnout.
Voters are simply tuning out all the negative advertising that has taken over their airwaves for months, and tuning out the election with it: Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center found just 15 percent of voters are following the election "very closely."
Interest in the elections, says Pew survey director Scott Keeter, "is at the lowest it has been at this point in an off-year election in at least two decades."