Editor's note: There are five days to go before voters cast ballots in the hotly contested midterm elections. In this special feature, CNN's political contributors share their quick thoughts on what's making news.
John P. Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for The Daily Beast. He is the author of "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America."
Alex Castellanos, a Republican strategist, is a founding partner of National Media Inc. and served as media consultant to the presidential campaigns of Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Phil Gramm and Mitt Romney.
Avlon: How independent voters are boosting Republican fortunes
Independent voters are swinging decisively toward Republicans in the final week of the election, virtually guaranteeing a Republican wave into Congress. Independents are, after all, the largest and fastest growing segment of the electorate.
Polls show independents giving a 14-point advantage to the GOP nationally. By comparison, Democrats won independent voters by 17 points when they won the House in 2006, and Barack Obama won independent voters by 8 points in 2008.
This trend has been building consistently for the past 20 months, beginning with the backlash surrounding the stimulus bill and bailouts and solidifying with health care. (For an indication of how long this trend has been building, take a look at this July 2009 column.) Polls now show that 62 percent of independents oppose the president's signature health care legislation, and of course it was support from independents that began this cycle's GOP surge with the surprise election of Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown.
Republican Senate candidates who are pulling away in the most recent polling are doing so because independent voters are swinging their way. For example, in the Kentucky Senate race, Republican Rand Paul is now beating Democrat Jack Conway roughly 60 percent to 30 percent among likely independent voters -- in large part because of backlash against Conway's negative and personal "Aqua Buddha" ad. In states where the Senate race is closer, like Colorado, it's because independents still have doubts about the GOP nominee.
I'd argue that independents are actually sending a consistent message between 2006 and today, absent the economy. Independents have been deficit hawks since the days of Ross Perot, and they like divided government because they believe that checks and balances will constrain ideological and legislative overreach. But any assumptions that the power of independent voters could force the two parties to work together might be dashed, given the bitter hyperpartisan divisions in the incoming Congress.
Castellanos: Republicans forcing Democrats to play defense
How do you know Republicans are going to sweep the House, seize a record number of state capitols and, yes, take the U.S. Senate on Tuesday? A Democratic president and first lady are campaigning in Illinois and California the final week before the election.
Quarterback Obama has been pushed back to his own 10-yard line. Imagine if President George W. Bush had spent the last week of his campaign defending Utah or his home state of Texas.
The Republican wave is flooding California. More evidence? The rising tide lifting Meg Whitman's campaign for governor. New internal Whitman polls reveal the successful businesswoman is now in a dead heat with Democrat Jerry Brown, despite an unrelenting media assault on the Republican self-funder over the last month. A tracking poll with a sample of 900 respondents by John McLaughlin conducted Sunday, Monday and Tuesday of this week, reveals the race is tied, with 44.7 percent supporting Brown and 43.2 percent for Whitman. With a distinctive, 60-second closing spot in which she speaks straight to voters, Whitman has refocused the race on jobs vs. business-as-usual with Brown in Sacramento. That's a winning argument this year in a state with towering unemployment and a bankrupt government.
Brown is identified by nearly half the voters in Whitman surveys as "more of the same in Sacramento." Though the latest CNN/Time/Opinion Research has Brown breaking the magic 50 percent he needs to win, Whitman's research of likely voters shows him dangerously stuck in the mid-40's. Most voters know the flaky career politician -- and there is no reason to think undecided voters who are already familiar with him would suddenly decide to love him more.
Whitman also has an ace in the hole. Fifty percent or more of the electorate will vote absentee or by mail. Whitman has built an impressive operation targeting the 1.3 million presidential-year voters who usually don't come out in off years. In Florida, a similar absentee-mail campaign delivered the Republican nomination to upset winner Rick Scott, though he actually lost the Election Day vote to establishment candidate Bill McCollum.
Could the cresting GOP wave elect a Republican governor in a state Obama carried with 61 percent? Stay tuned. Tracking from the Whitman campaign reveals that Meg Whitman has pulled ahead of Brown.
The opinions expressed in these commentaries are solely those of the authors.