Wendy Davis, who looks likely to lose her bid to be Texas governor. Photo: Stewart F House/Getty
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The US Midterms: the races you need to watch

Rarely has an election elicited a louder national cry of “meh”. But there are some important races buried beneath the banality.

America is abuzz with excitement today as it goes to the polls to elect a third of the Senate and all of the House of Representatives, as well as 38 governors of states or territories.

Well, no, actually, it isn't. In fact, despite the fact that more money will be spent on campaigns this year than in any other midterm election in America’s history, rarely has an election elicited a louder national cry of “meh”. Polls show that interest is record-breakingly low, and especially so among the undecided voters.

Americans are turned off by what many see as a choice between two fundamentally unappealing options: the Democrats, who have largely spent the campaign trying desperately to wriggle out of any suggestion of ties to the Obama administration; and the pretty much equally unpopular Republicans, including the extremist Tea Party.

The odd thing about all that is that actually this election is pretty important. Particularly, a couple of key races could decide whether the Democrats keep control of the Senate – the upper house of Congress – the balance of control of which currently relies on the narrowest of margins.

Then there are the gubernatorial races, which by and large have caught the media’s attention less. Wendy Davis, the Texas state legislator who held that incredible filibuster on reproductive rights last year, is looking likely to lose to current state Attorney General Greg Abbott. Wisconsin’s race is closer – Scott Walker, tipped as a possible Presidential contender in 2016, has the slimmest of leads. Florida, where former Governor Charlie Crist is trying to win back his old job against the genuinely alarming-looking current governor Rick Scott, is also close.

But the Senate is the really important thing about today’s election. Holding on to the upper house of Congress is crucial for the legislative possibilities of Obama's final two years in office, and the results today will shape the country in serious ways. The Republicans already control the House of Representatives; if they take the Senate too they will have carte blanche to pursue a right-wing legislative agenda.

The balance in the Senate could rest on a few key races; these are the ones that will receive the most coverage tonight:

 

Kentucky

The race between challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes and current Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell may not be looking as close now as it was a few weeks ago, but there’s still a chance Grimes could unseat the man who is otherwise the secont-most powerful Republican in the country. McConnell isn’t particularly popular, and has had trouble with his pledge to repeal Obamacare – mainly because Obamacare’s rollout in Kentucky has been a spectacular success. But Grimes has also suffered from an embarrassing episode in which she refused to say whether or not she voted for Obama in previous elections.

 

New Hampshire

Former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown has parachuted in to the state as something of a carpetbagger, but is currently neck-and-neck with incumbent Jeanne Shaheen, and the race is too close to call.

 

Alaska

The state that gave us Sarah Palin is a toss-up between incumbent Mark Begich and challenger Dean Sullivan. It’s a long way West, so polls don’t even close until 5AM GMT, so this will be one of the last races to be called – and last time around when Begich won, it was by so slim a margin that his Republican opponent didn’t concede until a full fortnight after election day.

 

Louisiana

Another popular Democratic incumbent, Mary Landrieu, is struggling to fend off a challenger. But under Louisiana’s electoral system, there can be multiple candidates from each party. If one candidate fails to get 50 per cent on the first ballot – which seems likely – then the state goes to a run-off election. There are two Republicans on the ballot, so once they combine, Landrieu could well be out of a job. But this one will run late.

 

South Dakota

A few weeks ago, nobody thought this was going to be interesting. But some recent polling has shown that an independent candidate, Larry Pressler, might be able to pull off an electoral miracle, beating both the Democrat and the Republican challengers. The incumbent is retiring, so the race is wide open. If the people of South Dakota opt for the outsider, it will be strongly emblematic of the people’s disgust with both parties.

 

Iowa

This one’s the big one. Obviously, each party wants to win as many Senate races as possible, but most election models portray Iowa as the bellwether. Polling has Democrat Bruce Braley running neck-and-neck with Republican Joni Ernst – who gained nationwide fame earlier in the campaign with this astonishing campaign ad.

 

Nicky Woolf is a freelance writer based in the US who has formerly worked for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.