The 10 Midterm Races That Matter for 2016

A handful of Senate, gubernatorial, and even state legislative races will have implications that echo long past November.

With just 62 days to go until Election Day, the focus of the political world is on the 2014 midterms. Senate control hangs in the balance, and a number of highly competitive, currently neck-and-neck races will help determine who comes out on top.

But what happens on November 4 has a big impact for the 2016 election as well. There are many pivotal Senate, gubernatorial, and even down-ballot contests that carry implications for the next presidential race, some involving future White House prospects and others from parties testing future messages.

Some prospective 2016 candidates still need to get reelected before they can think about a national campaign, for example, and candidates in important early states like Iowa and New Hampshire are getting help from possible presidential candidates in the hopes that they'll return the favor down the road.

Here's National Journal's list of the top 2014 races with big presidential-year implications.

1. Wisconsin Governor

This race tops the list: If GOP Gov. Scott Walker loses his bid for reelection, there's almost no way he'll be a presidential candidate, come 2016. Walker, who made it through both a tough 2010 race and an even tougher 2012 recall, is facing off against former Trek Bicycle executive Mary Burke, a Democrat.

Early predictions for the race suggested the 2012 recall drained Democratic enthusiasm to defeat Walker, and several other prominent Badger State Democrats passed on the race. But Burke has performed well, and Wisconsin's truly divided partisan nature means the race should be close, no matter who wins. A late-August poll from Marquette Law School found Burke 2 points up among likely voters and Walker 3 points up among registered voters, both within the margin of error.

Much of Walker's biography that appeals to 2016 GOP voters—his ability to win in a competitive state, even after pushing through conservative collective bargaining reform—hinges on his winning in November.

Also watching Walker's reelection closely: Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, who is arguably the most vulnerable senator up in 2016. His party losing the governorship wouldn't be a good omen for the freshman, who will be running for a second term in a less favorable national environment.

2. Colorado Senate

Colorado is both the epitome of a battleground state and a microcosm of where the country is headed demographically. Previously Republican-leaning, the state voted for President Obama in 2008 and 2012, and its growing Hispanic population makes it a bellwether of the GOP's ability to win over Latino voters going forward.

Republicans won a big recruiting coup when they got Rep. Cory Gardner to reconsider and jump into the race—and now he's neck and neck with Democratic incumbent Mark Udall. Both parties are investing heavily in this race, and polling shows it to be incredibly close.

A Udall victory would help cement the idea that Colorado is moving toward the Democrats—because if the GOP can't win there even in a lower-turnout midterm year, it will be tough to do so in 2016. And if Gardner wins here, his success will give the GOP renewed hope it has a chance here on the presidential level.

3. Iowa Senate

There's a reason all the 2016 hopefuls are all trying to be Republican Joni Ernst's new best friend: They know that if she's elected, she'll have enormous sway in the first-in-the-nation caucuses come 2016. Early-state endorsements are a big prize for any candidate, and Ernst—who hasn't indicated whether she'd endorse someone in 2016—would be one of the biggest gets of all.

Plus, Ernst very well could be the 51st seat for Republican in the Senate, making Iowa's race just as relevant for Senate control as it is for 2016. By coming to Iowa and helping Ernst, 2016 GOPers can also say they're helping the party take control of the Senate.

Many of the top 2016 GOP contenders have come to town to campaign or raise money with Ernst thus far; Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida not only raised money with her, his PAC also spent six figures running ads on her behalf. Another big Ernst helper has been 2012 candidate Mitt Romney, who has campaigned with her and helped her raise money.

4. New Hampshire Senate

Along the same lines as Iowa, having a Republican ally in the Granite State would be immensely helpful to any 2016er hoping to win its primary. Scott Brown, the former senator from Massachusetts who's now running to rejoin the Senate, is down against Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in most polling, but Republicans there are confident the race will be close after the state's Sept. 9 primary. And if Republicans win in New Hampshire, it would be a clear sign of a wave election—and one that could portend challenges for Democrats in 2016, as well.

Spending time in New Hampshire is a must for any presidential prospect, and many are planning to spend that time with Brown—such as Rand Paul, who's headed to the state shortly after the primary to headline a GOP Unity event. If Brown pulls out a surprising victory in November, he'll have plenty of goodwill for whichever 2016ers helped him get there, as well as considerable clout within the state's politics.

5. North Carolina Senate

Democrats held their national convention in Charlotte in 2012 as a sign of their commitment to expand their influence in this Southern but demographically changing state. Obama, despite having won the state in 2008, lost it narrowly in 2012—one of only two states that flipped between the two elections (the other was Indiana).

Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan was elected in 2008, riding Obama's coattails to victory; if she's able to win reelection this year, even with the millions in outside money being spent against her, it will help make Obama's 2008 victory there look less like an aberration and more like a long-term trend in the state.

6. Arkansas Senate

In addition to being home to one of the most competitive Senate races on the map this year, Arkansas is also the home of the Clintons: The former president and first lady have deep ties in Arkansas, which, recent stories have noted, they still maintain. Bill Clinton made an early campaign trip for Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor in 2013, and he and Hillary Clinton are expected to be involved there as the race progresses. Pryor faces GOP Rep. Tom Cotton and is one of the most vulnerable incumbent senators up for election this fall.

While there will almost certainly be discussion post-November about Hillary Clinton's effectiveness as a Democratic surrogate this fall, there's nowhere that will be tested more than in Arkansas, where Bill served two terms as governor. If the Clintons get heavily involved in this race, Pryor's fate will be an indication of their remaining clout in Arkansas and perhaps Hillary Clinton's 2016 viability in other conservative-minded states that once backed Democrats but have become reliably Republican.

7. Ohio Governor

Like Wisconsin's Walker, GOP Gov. John Kasich has been mentioned as a possible 2016 candidate, but he's all but guaranteed of a second term. Given Democrat Ed FitzGerald's campaign implosion in recent weeks, Kasich is expected to win easily in November.

Should Kasich look more seriously at a bid for president, being a swing-state governor who was reelected by double digits and who helped improve the state's economy is a great talking point on the campaign trail. The higher that margin is, the better it is for Kasich.

8. Florida Governor

Florida is a perennial swing state, and who's in charge there plays a big role in presidential election years. This year's matchup, an expensive, nasty brawl between GOP Gov. Rick Scott and Republican-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist, will determine who sits in the Governor's Mansion during the 2016 election.

If Crist wins, he can help build up the state Democratic Party ahead of the presidential year—a big boon to the eventual Democratic nominee. Thinking even further down the line, a Democratic governor could help negate the advantage a Florida presidential candidate, like Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush, would have in a 2016 general election.

9. Nevada Lieutenant Governor

Nevada's race for lieutenant governor, between Democrat Lucy Flores and Republican Mark Hutchison, has been described as a proxy war between GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid: If Hutchison wins, it could clear the way for Sandoval to challenge Reid in 2016. If Sandoval has a Republican lieutenant governor who could take over for him if he runs for the Senate, he'd be much more likely to seek out that race than if he'd be handing the Governor's Mansion to a Democrat.

Reid knows that, which is part of the reason he's putting his formidable political machine to work for Flores. Unlike in 2010, when Reid faced a weak opponent in Sharron Angle, a Reid-Sandoval matchup would be the race to watch in 2016.

Flores has a compelling biography, as a Latina who overcame personal difficulties (she was once in a gang) to become a top elected official. For a Democratic Party struggling to recruit Hispanic leaders, she's exactly the kind of politician that could rise quickly.

10. Kentucky State Legislature

It's not often a handful of state legislative races have huge national significance, but the race for the Kentucky state House is one of them. Under the state's current law, Sen. Rand Paul, an all-but-certain 2016 presidential candidate, must choose whether to run for president or run for reelection to the Senate. The GOP-led state Senate has passed a bill that would allow him to run for both, but the Democratic-led House is holding out—meaning that the only way for Paul to run for both offices is for the House to flip to Republican control.

Paul is determined to secure both spots on the ballot, and he has been working to support GOP state House candidates in competitive districts: Democrats currently control 54 of the 100 seats so the margin isn't huge. Plus, the budget for state legislative races in Kentucky is small enough that Paul, by fundraising for a candidate or donating from his PAC, can have a real impact.