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National Politics|By Amy Walter, September 4, 2014

From the ashes of one election come the sparks for the next. And, while I’m not wishing away 2014, I do think we’ll be spending more time than usual dissecting these midterm results. Specifically, we’ll be looking at the challenges awaiting the GOP going into 2016.

While the key to Senate control most likely lies in red states like Alaska, Louisiana, Arkansas, Kentucky, and North Carolina, Republicans should be as concerned with how their candidates perform in Colorado and Iowa. Since 1992, Colorado has voted three times for the Republican nominee and three times for the Democratic nominee. Iowa, meanwhile, has sided with the Democratic presidential nominee in every election but one over the last 20 years. Notably, both Iowa and Colorado went red in 2004, the last time a Republican won both the Electoral College and popular vote.

This year, Republicans have the wind at their back in both Colorado and Iowa. The president’s low approval ratings, the very high percentage of Americans who think the country is headed in the wrong direction, and the deep pessimism about the state of the economy all benefit the GOP. Republicans fielded a strong candidate in Colorado, a marked improvement from their weak challenger of 2010. In Iowa, the combination of a stumbling Democratic candidate and a stronger-than-expected Republican candidate has helped to keep that race a Toss Up.

For their part, Democrats are not without some weapons at their disposal. In Colorado, Democrats are counting not just on demographics (including a big gender gap) to pull Sen. Mark Udall through, but they are also banking on new voting laws passed by the Democratic-controlled legislature in 2013 which allow for same day registration and a requirement that all registered voters receive a ballot in their mailbox. In Iowa, Democrats have a long history of successfully finding and turning out their voters. In fact, if you look at the difference between John Kerry’s narrow loss in 2004 and Barack Obama’s 52 percent win in the state in 2012, you can see the power of turn-out at work. While Romney simply hit or narrowly exceeded George W. Bush’s margins in many of the key counties, Obama dramatically out-performed Kerry, even in Democratic-leaning counties. For example, Kerry won Polk County (Des Moines), by 52 percent in 2004. Obama carried it with 57 percent in 2012.

Even so, Republicans have everything going for them in 2014. If the combination of a great environment, lower turn-out, and good candidates can’t get them to victory in swing states like Colorado or Iowa, it doesn’t bode well for a GOP presidential candidate in 2016.

The Wisconsin governor’s race is another place to look for 2016 signposts. Wisconsin has been something of a white whale for Republicans at the presidential level (the last time it went red was 1984). Even so, just as Democrats were able to win the White House by expanding the map in the west and southeast in 2008 and 2012, Republicans must be able to expand their reach as well. The Rust Belt, where Republicans have had success winning governors’ mansions but not Electoral College votes, is ripe territory.

Cue the Badger state’s GOP governor, Scott Walker, who has not been coy about his desire to run in 2016. First, however, he has to prove that his wins in 2010 and 2012 weren’t flukes. He is currently in a dead-heat against his Democratic rival, Mary Burke. More ominously for Walker is the fact that while the state’s voters are feeling better about the direction the state is going in, they aren’t giving Walker any credit. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Craig Gilbert put it this way: “in the 2012 polls, 50.5% of voters thought the state was headed in the right direction and virtually the same number (50.8%) approved of the governor’s performance; in the 2014 polls, a higher share (53.6%) think the state is headed in the right direction, but a lower share (48.6%) approve of the governor.” In other words, Walker’s image has been built less on his success in an improved Wisconsin and more on his polarizing personality and actions. He may still be able to win in Wisconsin with this polarizing image in 2014, but to win in traditional blue territory in 2016, Walker has to show an ability to broaden the reach/appeal of the GOP brand in the state.

If Republicans want to prove they can win in 2016, just winning control of the Senate in 2014 won’t be enough. Winning over a red state in a Republican-friendly year is easy. It’s winning in swing states that shows the real strength (or weakness) of the party going forward. If the GOP loses the ground game in swing states in a year like 2014, it means that they could get swamped in 2016.