Four Election Day Races to Watch

Important issues will be decided in this off-year election.

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While much of the nation turns its eyes to next year's presidential election, some states and municipalities are ramping up for tomorrow—Election Day 2011. Less ink is spilled over off-year elections than presidential elections and even midterms, but they are often when important issues are decided—and they can set the stage for more high-profile elections. Here are four races to watch when Tuesday's ballots are counted.

Virginia State Senate

Currently, Democrats control the state's upper house with a four-seat majority, 22-18. If Republicans gain that majority, they would then own control of the state's House of Delegates, governor's mansion, and Senate. In addition, some watchers are saying that the outcomes of Virginia's 2011 legislative elections could prove a bellwether for how the swing state votes in the 2012 presidential election, as well as its open U.S. Senate race in 2012.

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Kentucky Governor

The Kentucky gubernatorial race is not expected to be a nail-biter; Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear is expected to win by a comfortable margin. So why watch? Because according to conventional wisdom, Beshear shouldn't roll to an easy victory. As the AP's Roger Alford notes, Beshear started off at a seeming disadvantage, as an incumbent Democrat in a conservative state that voted against President Obama. Economic and fiscal woes also work against him; Beshear was forced to cut the state budget, subjecting state employees to unpaid furloughs.

"I think it illustrates the difference between parties at the national level and parties at the state level," says David Rohde, professor of political science at Duke University. Rohde says that in maintaining popularity, Beshear "has focused on things that are important to Kentuckians, pursued a moderate conservative line, [and] probably tries to stay away from things that are the most divisive nationally."

Ohio Issue 2

After the widely publicized battle in Wisconsin earlier this year, Ohio's Issue 2 has brought public employee unions again to the forefront of the national debate. If defeated, Ohio's Issue 2 would overturn Senate Bill 5, a new law limiting collective-bargaining rights for state employees. Among the new law's provisions are a ban on strikes, allowing public employees to opt out of paying union fees, and an expansion of the topics that management can refuse to negotiate with employees. Unions are powerful political forces in the United States, and a union battle in one place can impact politics nationwide and in future elections. "I'm sure that the unions will use this as a motivating tool," says Rohde, "and it's been a prominent consideration in different ways in a whole variety of states."

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Mississippi Initiative 26

Over 100,000 signatures were collected to get Initiative 26 onto the Mississippi ballot. Voters will have the opportunity to define personhood on Tuesday, answering the question: "Should the term 'person' be defined to include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the equivalent thereof?" A victory would be a win for the pro-life movement in the Magnolia State, where abortion laws are already among the strictest in the nation: Women seeking the service must receive counseling including information intended to discourage the abortion, and then wait 24 hours before undergoing the procedure.

Initiative 26 is expected to pass, but the fallout from its passage could be complicated. For example, it could impact distribution of the so-called "morning-after" pill or birth control pills. It could also impact in-vitro fertilization, as that procedure involves unused fertilized eggs. Some also worry that the measure could wrongly put women who have miscarried under suspicion of murder.

Mississippi Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, who has already voted for the measure via absentee ballot, has also voiced reservations about it. He noted on NBC's Meet the Press that he was concerned about what the initiative's wording could mean under particularly mitigating circumstances, like ectopic pregnancies.