ARDEN, N.C. "“ If there's a Republican wave, it's broken against the Blue Ridge Mountains that nearly encircle this western North Carolina town south of Asheville. Brian Turner's campaign is proof.
The telegenic 40-year-old year-old Democrat is running for a state House seat held by Republican incumbent Rep. Tim Moffitt. It's a race he should lose: Moffitt's district was redrawn after 2010 to give the rising GOP star a friendlier electorate, and Mitt Romney carried it easily in 2012.
Yet polls make it plain that Turner could win -- a victory that would come even amid heavy losses for his party nationwide. Because in North Carolina, voters casting ballots in local races aren't just thinking about President Obama, ISIS or liberal overreach. Right now, they're also concerned about the state's Republican-controlled government, whose aggressive budgets cuts and conservative priorities sparked cries that it was out of sync with a Democratic-trending state.
"People here are concerned about environmental issues and education," said Turner, a former producer at MTV who ended up a Vice Chancellor at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, a job he said gave him an up-close look at North Carolina's education cutbacks. "That's what's driving the vast majority of voters."
Obama is rarely mentioned. Turner spent an hour one sunny Sunday afternoon talking with about a dozen centrist voters, with none of them mentioning the president.
"All politics is local" is one of Washington's favorite clichés. But Washington isn't as right as it used to be: Senate and even gubernatorial candidates are increasingly tied to their respective national parties, and three of the last four elections have been driven by a presidential race or a sitting president's deep disapproval. The national climate has filtered to even state House races, as it did in 2010, when Republicans won 675 state legislative seats.
The conditions are ripe for repeat in 2014, with Obama's job approvals stuck at the lowest levels of his presidency. But in several key races, a national political climate driven by the president's unpopularity has been eclipsed locally by a less-Republican friendly attitude. It's turning once-predicable contests into some of the country's most competitive battles, and it's a key difference between this midterm election and many of its recent predecessors.
In Kansas, a revolt of moderate Republicans have endangered Gov. Sam Brownback "“ whose deep cuts to government spending have partly elicited the anger "“ and sent Washington operatives scrambling to help Rep. Lynn Jenkins. Sen. Pat Roberts, whose campaign has been badly damaged by his out-of-state residency and hard-fought primary, has also been imperiled by the moderate GOP backlash and has had to fight tooth-and-nail to win re-election despite the state's Republican lean.
Two high-profile GOP governors, Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Rick Snyder of Michigan, have fought unexpectedly tight re-election races because of their own states' lackluster economies. A favorable Republican climate hasn't saved Georgia's Nathan Deal, Alaska's Sean Parnell, or Florida's Rick Scott from a tough fight, either.
There aren't elected officials beset by personal scandal or, with the possible exception of Snyder, running in deep-blue states where re-election was always an uphill battle. They're simply having to seek re-election in states where contrary to expectations, they're not getting an extra bump of support because the president is unpopular.
North Carolina's state Legislature, which ranks among the country's most conservative since 2013, has created a different political climate here as well. To some degree, that's bled into the Senate race between incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan and GOP challenger Thom Tillis, who also serves as the state House speaker. Hagan has blamed Tillis for the Legislature's record, particularly cuts to education funding, throughout the campaign.
But the dissatisfaction with the state legislature had its greatest effect in state legislative races, where Turner and two other house Democratic candidates near Asheville are all seen as competitive bets to knock off Republican incumbents.
"I'm not real happy with the way things are going with Republicans in power," said Joe Carroll, a 59-year-old registered independent, told Turner after he knocked on his door. Carroll has offered him his tentative support.