With Labor Day behind us, the nine-week sprint to the finish begins today in the midterm campaign. That means candidates in competitive races across the country will be ramping up their efforts as voters start tuning in more and more.
Some of those competitive contests were destined to go down to the wire from since the beginning. (We're looking at you, North Carolina Senate race.) But there are a handful of others we didn't see coming -- either because of surprisingly strong or weak candidates, unexpected twists or local factors that flew under the national radar for months.
Below, in alphabetical order, are the five surprisingly-not-so-boring contests that stand out the most. In each, there is plenty to be settled between now and Nov. 4. What did we miss? The comments section awaits your input!
1. Alaska governor's race: The Senate race has long been ripe for competition since a Democrat is running for re-election in the ruby red Last Frontier. But the governor's race? With a Republican incumbent? That's much more surprising. It's increasingly possible, too. The Alaska Dispatch reports that the state Democratic Party voted overwhelmingly on Monday not to put up its own candidate, and instead to support a joint ticket of independent Bill Walker and Byron Mallott, the current Democratic nominee. While the unity ticket needs to be finalized and could still fall through -- but the idea is simple: A three-way race would allow Gov. Sean Parnell (R) to coast to victory. But this way, anti-Parnell forces can try to rally support behind one of his opponents. Parnell still looks like the favorite, but if the 11th hour deal works out, his hold on a second term won't be nearly as firm as it looked a few months ago.
2. Kansas governor's race: At the start of 2013, the Kansas governor's race was nowhere to be found on the national radar. But Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's staunchly conservative first-term agenda -- including tax cuts and slashed education spending -- has triggered a massive backlash among his party's moderate ranks. In July, more than 100 current and former Republican officials endorsed Brownback's Democratic opponent, state Rep. Paul Davis -- a stunning defection on a scale that simply isn't normally seen in races where there is a Republican incumbent on the ballot in a deeply conservative state. Polls show Davis has a real shot at winning. And the money agrees: The Democrat outraised Brownback during the last quarter.
3. Kansas Senate race: Did we mention that Kansas is a very conservative state? How about this: The state has not sent a Democrat to the Senate since the 1930s. And there's a well-known incumbent Republican senator on the ballot. Yet it's become clear Sen. Pat Roberts (R) could end up with his hands full during the next nine weeks. The senator was first roughed up during the primary over his residency, an issue that cuts across party lines: His primary challenger repeatedly slammed him for paying rent to supporters when he is in the state, instead of living in his own home. Strategists say those attacks helped fuel an impression that Roberts is out of touch, and have undercut his popularity. Add to the equation an intriguing three-way race with a Democrat and a former Democrat-turned independent that is ripe for some outsider meddling, and you have all the ingredients for a competitive contest -- one almost nobody saw coming.
4. New York's 11th congressional district: When Rep. Michael Grimm (R) was indicted on 20 counts of tax and business fraud in April, it looked like he was finished politically. But national Democrats don't spend money in races where the Republican is toast. So when the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee hit the airwaves last month with an attack ad against Grimm, it was a signal that the congressman may not be the goner most have made him out to be. While the indictment was front-page news in the spring, it's no longer getting lots of attention. Democrats want to make sure voters don't forget. That's why they ran the ad. Democrat Domenic Recchia is still the favorite here. But he's not a sure bet just yet in the eyes of Washington Democrats.
5. New York governor's/lieutenant governor's race: No, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) isn't in imminent danger of losing his job. That said, his re-election campaign has been a lot more eventful that many would have envisioned the popular incumbent -- and potential presidential candidate -- would have to endure. The latest complication involves Cuomo's running mate, former congresswoman Kathy Hochul. The New York Post reports that Cuomo and his team are wrestling with the possibility of replacing Hochul from the ticket with the more liberal college professor Tim Wu, who is gaining steam ahead of next Tuesday's primary. If Wu wins, it would complicate Cuomo's general election outlook since votes for the Cuomo/Hochul tickets on the Working Families, Independence, and Women’s Equality lines would not count for him. Polls show Cuomo is popular and remains a good bet for re-election. But his LG dilemma and the attention his primary challenger Zephyr Teachout has received are two more instances of he governor's longstanding fight with his liberal critics.