(CN) - While the gyrations, outrageous comments and general unpleasantness of this year's presidential contest have dominated the political headlines the past 11 months, there are contests further down the ticket in key battleground states that will go a long way toward determining how America is governed over the next four years.
This is particularly true in contests for the U.S. Senate, where the Democrats have a real chance of to taking back the majority.
The Courthouse News took the temperature of these contests in recent days. Here's what our reporters found.
Winds of Change Blow in Nevada
LAS VEGAS (CN) — U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., is retiring after nearly a decade as the top Senate Democrat, and the race to replace him is in a virtual dead-heat.
Former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto is the Democrat vying to replace Reid, while Rep. Joe Heck, R-Las Vegas, a physician and former U.S. Army brigadier general, is the Republican candidate.
As of Tuesday evening, Real Clear Politics indicated Heck had a 0.4-point lead after averaging four polls and ranks the race as a toss-up.
Polls by Emerson and NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist show Heck with a 4-point and 7-point lead, respectively. Polls by Gravis, the Las Vegas Review-Journal and KTNV/Rasmussen indicate Masto has leads of 6, 1 and 2 points, respectively.
The winner will replace a man who has held the Senate seat since 1986, when he authored and helped pass legislation that created the Great Basin National Park, which was Nevada's first national park.
Reid became the Senate majority leader after Democrats wrested control of the body from the GOP in 2007. He held the position until the Republicans regained a majority in the Senate after the 2014 election.
Reid's ascent to one of the pinnacles of power in Washington and long tenure in the post is in many ways a quintessential American success story.
Reid was born in 1939 in Searchlight, Nevada, to hard-rock miner Harry Reid Sr. and Inez Reid and lived in a sun-beaten wooden shack with no indoor toilet.
His Senate biography says Reid accompanied his father as he worked long days in underground mines. Reid's father had only an eighth-grade education, and his mother did not complete high school.
Reid still maintains a home in Searchlight, Nevada, a former mining town located 58 miles south of Las Vegas. In 2010 it had a population of 539.
As a youth, Reid says he routinely hitchhiked 40 miles to attend Basic High School in Henderson, Nevada, from which he graduated in 1957. He married his wife, Landra, two years later. The couple has a daughter, Lana, and four sons: Rory, Leif, Josh and Key.
Reid earned a bachelor's degree from Utah State University in 1961, and worked as a capitol police officer in Washington D.C. while attending law school at George Washington University, from which graduated in 1964.
Reid began his political career in 1968, when he won election to the Nevada Assembly at age 28, and two years later became the state's youngest lieutenant governor.
In 1977, Reid was appointed chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission, which he ran for five years and helped to lessen the mob's grip on Las Vegas gaming. Reid says he received several death threats while head of the commission.
Reid won his first of two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1982, and was elected to the Senate in 1986.
"Someone with my background, my upbringing, to have the experiences I've had is really a miracle and I want the people of the state of Nevada to know that I am so grateful. And I have done my best," Reid said in a March 2015 video news release announcing his retirement from politics.
"I haven't been perfect, but I've really tried my hardest to represent the people of the state of Nevada."
As senator, Reid promoted economic and infrastructure development in Nevada, investing in clean energy and fighting the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage site.
He also touts among his accomplishments protecting Social Security, helping to pass the Affordable Care Act, and addressing the national housing foreclosure crisis that struck Nevada particularly hard during the Great Recession.
Reid's personal wealth has been estimated at more than $6 million, much of it coming from land deals and real estate investments, some of which have generated controversy.
The conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch says Reid made a $1.1 million profit on the sale of land he bought from a developer the group, a frequent Reid critic, says benefited from a government land swap supported by the senator.
Reid also came under criticism from Republicans in recent years for his supposedly lavish lifestyle.
These critiques reached their peak during his bid for re-election in 2010 when his GOP challenger, Sharron Angle used his living in the Ritz-Carlton while in Washington as evidence that he was a wealthy politician and out-of-touch with those who live in his home state.
With his retirement, Democrats need Masto to win to have a realistic chance of taking control of the Senate from the Republicans.
The GOP currently has 54 members in the Senate, while Democrats have 44. There are also two Independents who caucus with Democrats.
A Senate controlled by Democrats, rather than the GOP, would give Clinton a much easier path through confirmation hearings of potential cabinet appointments, as well as filling the vacant U.S. Supreme Court seat.
New Hampshire Seen As A Dead Heat
(CN) - Locked in a statistical tie heading into the last weekend of their respective campaigns, New Hampshire's two senatorial candidates, Kelly Ayotte and Maggie Hassan, are seeking to define themselves as independents in a state where both party's nominees have historic unfavorable ratings and ad spending by outside groups has topped $80 million.
Fighting to save her Senate seat, first-term GOP Senator Kelly Ayotte has spent much of her campaign overshadowed by her party's presidential nominee.
In the state that gave Donald Trump his first big primary win back in January, Ayotte has tried to walk a fine line between distancing herself from the billionaire real estate developer while simultaneously seeking to appease his core supporters.
Initially saying she would "support" but not endorse Trump, even after he called her "weak" in August for criticizing his attack on a Gold Star family, Ayotte withdrew her support after the October release of a video showing Trump bragging about groping women. Instead, she says, she will be writing in the name of Trump's running mate, Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, on Election Day.
Just days earlier, she had come under fire for claiming during a televised Senate debate that she "absolutely" considered Trump a role model. She later walked back the statement, saying she "misspoke."
Her Democratic opponent, two-term Gov. Maggie Hassan, pounced on the moment to paint Ayotte's actions as political maneuvering at time when voters are tired of Washington. But Hassan has not been immune to negative public perceptions of her party's candidate.
In August, Hassan awkwardly stumbled when asked in a CNN interview if she thought Hillary Clinton was honest by replying, "I support Hillary Clinton for the presidency because her experience and record demonstrate she's qualified to hold the job."
Despite her gaffe, Hassan has benefitted from Clinton's vast campaign infrastructure in the state and slight lead in the polls over Trump. She's appeared at numerous canvas kick-offs and rallies with Clinton and her campaign surrogates, including First Lady Michelle Obama.
In sharp contrast, Sen. Ayotte has avoided Trump campaign appearances and instead focused on retail politics. She's sought to connect to the electorate through running 5Ks, having dinner with voters and even bagging groceries.
But in the solidly purple state of 1.3 million, it's independents that make up almost 40 percent of registered voters.
In the face of Clinton's and Trump's historic unfavorable ratings in the state, split-ticketing voting is a greater possibility than in other senate race in the country. It could be one reason why nearly $80 million in outside money has poured in through television ads, of which $40 million has been directed toward attacking Ayotte and $29 million spent against Hassan, making New Hampshire the second most expensive Senate race in the country.
A WMUR/UNH poll released Monday reveals the effect of those ads is unclear. With the election just one week away, 29% of voters, including 39% of independents, are still undecided between the two candidates.
Missouri Senate Battle Reflects Nastiness of White House Race
ST. LOUIS (CN) — Aside from this year's presidential race, it's hard to imagine a political contest as nasty as the race for U.S. Senate in Missouri where incumbent Republican Roy Blunt is being challenged by Democrat Jason Kander.
Blunt, 66, has a conservative voting record in his 20 years in Congress. Kander has attacked Blunt's longevity, painting him as a Washington insider who lives in a D.C. mansion paid for by special interests. Kander's ads also claim politics is a Blunt family business, with his wife and children being lobbyists.
Kander, 35, is an Afghanistan war veteran and military intelligence officer who served two terms in the Missouri House before being elected statewide in 2012.
Blunt's ads, meanwhile, claim Kander will be an automatic vote for Hillary Clinton's liberal agenda and that Clinton's campaign gave Kander $500,000 for that reason.
The ads also say Kander will support an expansion of the Affordable Care Act, and that he supports open borders -- both stances sure to be raise the ire of Missouri's traditionally conservative voters.
The election could be decided on voter turnout in St. Louis and Kansas City, which are decidedly more than the state's GOP-dominated rural communities. In the latest poll by Real Clear Politics, Blunt (46.8 percent) held just a one-and-a-half point lead over Kander (45.3 percent).
Blunt cites his top legislative achievements as his work to help pass a new federal transportation-funding bill after years of congressional inaction; bipartisan bills expanding mental health coverage and federal health research funding; a strengthened federal response to child abuse; and the work he and other members of the Missouri delegation did to keep a new National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency center in St. Louis.
Kander doesn't have the voting track record that Blunt does. He is liberal on such issues as the Affordable Care act, abortion rights and pay equity, but he opposed the Obama administration on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
Kander favors abortion rights, while Blunt opposes abortion with exceptions to save the life of the woman or in the case of rape or incest. Both men, however, favor retention of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal dollars funding abortions.
On Cuba, Blunt says the U.S. should not normalize relations as long as the Castro brothers are in power. Kander says U.S. policy toward Cuba is outdated and that ending trade embargoes to Cuba will help Missouri exporters.
Blunt says his 2001 vote for the original "No Child Left Behind" act was one of his biggest regrets in Congress, though he opposes the "Every Child Achieves Act," a 2015 rewrite of "No Child" saying it leaves too much control of education in federal hands. Kander favors the legislation.
Both have criticized President Barack Obama's use of an executive order to make it easier for millions in America illegally to gain citizenship.
Blunt claims that Kander is softer on illegal immigration and says Kander has been reluctant to criticize "sanctuary cities."
Kander says he would have supported a bipartisan plan to reform immigration that would have eased the pathway to citizenship and was supported by leading Republicans, including Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. John McCain, while Blunt was one of 32 Republicans to oppose the Senate version of the bill.
On minimum wage, Kander supports raising the $7.25 federal minimum wage to $12 an hour. Blunt says the minimum wage should be set by each state.
Blunt has been an outspoken critic of the 2010 Affordable Care Act. Blunt calls for the law's repeal citing higher premiums, deductibles, insurer pullbacks and other results.
Kander says he would have pushed for changes before voting yes, and is disappointed that Congress has not dealt with "immediate fixes" to make the law better, including a permanent repeal of a tax on high-benefit "Cadillac" insurance plans as well as changing the 30-hour work week used to define a full-time employee covered under the law.