Today's 2014 Senate races, tomorrow's 2016 presidential battlegrounds

CBS

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

The short list of pivotal states in the race for control of the U.S. Senate invariably includes Arkansas, Louisiana, and Alaska. In this high-stakes election year, they are driving many of the key themes in play nationally: the power of family dynasties, President Obama's unpopularity in red states, and Democratic incumbents hoping to survive as once familiar ground shifts beneath them.

Indeed, all three will be closely watched, especially since West Virginia, Montana, and South Dakota appear to be likely pickups for the GOP. Together, those six states will test the durability of the Democratic Party in areas that have grown hostile to it at the local level.

But after Election Day, they may well fall off the radar as the focus turns to the open race for the White House in 2016. While competitive in off-year elections, all six states are reliably Republican in presidential years.

Instead, Senate contests in North Carolina, Iowa, and Colorado could double this year as both congressional battlegrounds and presidential race crystal balls, providing long-term clues for both parties. Obama won these three states in 2008, and Iowa and Colorado in 2012. Now, however, the prospects for his party in all of them are challenging. The president figures to be a weight on Democratic candidates in those Senate races (though, because he has competed here himself, his campaign infrastructure could be a help).

Republicans need to gain a net of six seats to take control of the upper chamber. That may be a tall order, considering that they have to hold on to seats in Georgia and Kentucky, but the climate is favorable and several routes to their goal are open.

As is the case in other contests, the Democratic candidates in North Carolina, Iowa, and Colorado are running local races infused with national party themes. They are doing their best to separate themselves from the president while also addressing issues he has championed to motivate their bases.

With that in mind, here is a look at where these races stand, three months out from Election Day:

North Carolina

The Senate race in the Tar Heel State could hinge on what carries more negative weight: President Obama and national Democrats or the GOP governor and legislature.

Democrat Kay Hagan began this cycle as one of the most vulnerable incumbents. The freshman senator came to office as part of the Obama wave in 2008 and, like many of her colleagues elected that year, her re-election prospects have been made more difficult by him.

Hagan has outraised her GOP opponent, Thom Tillis, and has over $8 million in cash compared to his $1.5 million. But she has been a top target for Republican spending by outside groups. For example, Americans for Prosperity, a pro-GOP super PAC backed by Charles and David Koch, is spending more than $8 million against her. Republicans hope to pin her to Obama at every turn, particularly on the health care law, government spending and gun laws.

Polls show a close race between the two candidates, and give Hagan a slight edge: She's up 1.8 points in the RealClearPolitics average. A possible reason: Just as Obama is unpopular in the state, so too is the state legislature.

Republicans made big gains in North Carolina in 2012. Not only did Mitt Romney win there after it went for Obama four years earlier, but the party also gained control of the governor's mansion and the legislature for the first time in several decades. Since then, state lawmakers have passed several controversial measures involving voting rights, guns, and abortion.

Tillis (pictured) overcame a Tea Party challenge to win his party's nomination, and has been considered an electable GOP candidate. But as state House speaker, he has been at the center of these issues, and Democrats have used them to paint him as extreme.

Tillis' job has also kept him from making much progress on the campaign trail. For a month, the legislature has been in an extended session over the budget, specifically debating whether to increase teacher pay and expand Medicaid. (On Tuesday, Tillis and the Senate president announced a compromise to increase teacher salaries.)

The race is likely to remain close in the final months, and Republicans see opportunities for Tillis to make gains after the legislative session wraps up and voters are paying more attention.

Hagan and Democratic groups are running attack ads to capitalize on Gov. Pat McCrory's and the legislature's poor grades. However, the state Democratic Party has been going through its own turmoil, which could affect the next presidential contest more than the current Senate race.

In North Carolina, a Hagan loss could signal trouble ahead for Democrats hoping to compete there in 2016. With its quickly changing demographics, this Southern state has been moving more toward the makeup of Virginia than that of Arkansas or Alaska. That shifting landscape helped Democrats to victory in 2008. But after the party held its national convention in Charlotte and heavily targeted the state, Obama still lost North Carolina in 2012, albeit by a slim margin.

Turnout models vary from midterm to presidential years. Some Democrats argue that the perception of the state legislature as overreaching and ideologically extreme will carry over into the presidential race and have more of an impact than the Hagan-Tillis outcome does.

In addition, "Obama won't be on the ballot in 2016, so the nature of the race will be very different," said Marc Farinella, who managed Obama's 2008 campaign in North Carolina. "In 2016 Democrats get a bit of a fresh start with a new candidate."

The outcome of the Senate race, though, will give at least a temporary assessment of which way the winds are blowing there in the lead-up to the presidential race, and whether North Carolina will still be considered a top battleground.

"It's a state not to be neglected by either party," says Tom Eamon, an East Carolina University professor and author of "Making of a Southern Democracy." "Because this year North Carolina is going to surpass Michigan in population."

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