(CNN) — Welcome to Election Day 2013, where two gubernatorial contests and the race for mayor of the nation’s biggest city will be settled and a GOP primary battle for a U.S. House seat in Alabama is getting outsized attention.
But what makes most of these 2013 elections interesting is what they may tell us about 2014 midterms and the 2016 race for the White House.
Virginia and New Jersey are the only two states to hold elections for governor in the year after a presidential contest, putting them directly in the national political spotlight. In New Jersey, public opinion polls indicate tough-talking Gov. Chris Christie, one of the biggest names in the Republican Party, will easily win re-election over little known Democratic state Sen. Barbara Buono.
With Christie considering a run for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, his re-election campaign is seen as a tuneup or stepping stone for that likely White House bid.
In Virginia, national issues like the government shutdown and the health care law are playing a large role in the battle between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. For months McAuliffe has held a consistent small lead in public opinion polls over Cuccinelli, who is considered a hero to many tea party supporters and other grass-roots activists thanks to his very public conservative crusades, including his push against Obamacare.
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Whichever party comes out on top in the crucial purple state will get instant bragging rights as the political spotlight shifts to the 2014 midterm elections.
In New York, polls predict progressive City Advocate Bill de Blasio winning in a landslide, which would give Democrats their first mayor in more than two decades in a city where they greatly outnumber Republicans.
In Alabama, it’s a fight for the future of the GOP, as a tea party conservative and a more establishment Republican battle in a primary runoff for an open U.S. House seat.
A nasty race in purple Virginia
Of the two gubernatorial races this year, the contest in Virginia is by far the closest.
McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman, has consistently had an advantage in the polls, but his margin over Cuccinelli has largely been in the single digits.
The latest poll, a Quinnipiac University survey, shows McAuliffe ahead of Cuccinelli, 46%-40%.
A third-party candidate, libertarian Robert Sarvis, could be a spoiler. According to recent polls, Sarvis is taking around 8% to 10% of the vote, a significant chunk when the Republican and Democratic candidates are so close.
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Tuesday’s winner will go on to succeed Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, who’s not running for re-election because Virginia governors cannot serve consecutive terms.
The two main campaigns have attempted to frame the race as a referendum on a larger national issue.
Cuccinelli’s supporters argue a vote against McAuliffe is a vote against Obamacare. McAuliffe and Democrats have pinned Cuccinelli as a tea party activist, linking him to conservative lawmakers in Washington who initiated a strategy that eventually led to last month’s government shutdown.
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The two sides have engaged in nasty political warfare that has taken over the airwaves in Virginia. McAuliffe has made sure women are aware of Cuccinelli’s support of “personhood” legislation that critics say restrict abortion and some forms of birth control.
Cuccinelli has frequently highlighted federal investigations of an electric car company that McAuliffe co-founded.
While McAuliffe has an advantage over his Republican rival, neither candidate is particularly well-liked. The Quinnipiac Poll released Monday showed 42% of likely voters had a favorable opinion of the Democrat, while 45% had an unfavorable view. Cuccinelli also had a negative favorability rating, 38% to 52%.
Cuccinelli has particularly struggled to gain support among women and unite the commonwealth’s GOP base as a whole.
High-profile surrogates have come out to bat for the two main gubernatorial hopefuls. President Barack Obama, former President Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden have all hit the trail for McAuliffe.
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Cuccinelli, meanwhile, has had visible support from GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and former GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee of Arkansas. Former Rep. Ron Paul also endorsed the attorney general and headlined an event for Cuccinelli on Monday night.
If McAuliffe wins, he would break a long streak in Virginia gubernatorial contests. In the last nine elections, the political party controlling the White House lost the governor’s race.
Republicans control 30 of the nation’s governorships.
What Christie’s 2013 re-election bid tells us about 2016
In New Jersey, Chris Christie’s re-election has never been in doubt. Rather, the big question throughout this yearlong campaign has been how large a victory the high-profile Republican with national aspirations will capture against state Sen. Barbara Buono, the little-known Democratic challenger.
Christie held leads of 36 percentage points, 28 points and 20 points over Buono among likely Garden State voters in three public opinion polls released on the eve of the election. That has pretty much been the storyline the entire campaign, after Christie’s numbers skyrocketed late last year, thanks to his job responding to Superstorm Sandy, which slammed into the Garden State and caused billions of dollars in damage days before Election Day 2012.
Christie has greatly outraised and outspent Buono, who has received little support from national Democrats and their affiliated groups.
The most recent polls indicate Christie winning not only Republican and independent voters, but also grabbing anywhere from a quarter to nearly 40% of Democratic voters in a state where Democrats greatly outnumber Republicans. Those same surveys suggest Christie winning among female voters, staying competitive among younger voters, and performing better with minority voters than most Republicans candidates in recent years. If those kinds of numbers hold up on Election Day, they should bolster Christie’s case that he’s among the most electable of the potential GOP White House hopefuls heading into 2016.
Christie stays way ahead in last three polls before election
Christie’s political future has come up numerous times during the campaign.
“I can walk and chew gum at the same time,” Christie said at one of two debates against Buono. “I can do this job and also deal with my future, and that’s exactly what I will do.”
Asked in an NBC News interview that aired this past weekend if he’s planning for a message that extends beyond New Jersey, Christie replied, “I’m not planning for it, I just think it’s inevitable.”
NYC likely to elect first Democratic mayor in a generation
With Public Advocate Bill de Blasio’s massive lead over Republican nominee Joe Lhota in recent polls, the city is poised to put a Democrat back in the mayor’s office for the first time in two decades. A survey released Monday showed de Blasio ahead of Lhota 65%-24% among likely voters.
At the center of the race are disagreements over taxes and the city’s controversial “stop and frisk” program backed by incumbent Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
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De Blasio has campaigned on a promise to raise taxes on those earning more than $500,000 a year to pay for universal pre-kindergarten, an idea Lhota vehemently opposes.
While Lhota has painted himself as a fiscal conservative, he has sought distance from national Republicans on social issues by reiterating his pro-abortion rights and pro-same-sex marriage stances.
As for the stop-and-frisk policing tactics — which have been called racial profiling and severely constrained by a court ruling — de Blasio has said he would replace Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, appoint an independent inspector general, and take sufficient steps to end the searches.
Lhota, former GOP Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s deputy and former head of the city Transit Authority, points to the sharp reduction of crime under Kelly and is more eager to defend the program, though he agrees it needs to be reworked.
The mayoral race in the Big Apple was often called a political circus before the primary, when former Rep. Anthony Weiner faced new allegations of his infamous sexting habits. Weiner had strong numbers in the polls as he started his campaign, suggesting New York was ready to forgive the disgraced ex-congressman. But those numbers quickly plummeted as he refused to drop out of the race after he admitted to having online relationships with women even after he resigned from Congress.
He eventually placed fifth in the crowded Democratic primary.
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a lesbian who would have been the city’s first female mayor, was also thought to be a strong contender early on. But as the months went on leading up to Primary Day, she saw her numbers slip, as de Blasio and former comptroller Bill Thompson gained more popularity.
De Blasio, who rose to prominence while also spotlighting his interracial family, narrowly avoided a runoff with Thompson.
Fight for the GOP plays out in Republican primary battle
The GOP congressional primary runoff in Alabama marks the first time since the partial federal government shutdown that Republican voters will weigh in on which direction they want to take their party.
While this is a runoff for the Republican Party nominee in next month’s general election for the 1st Congressional District seat vacated when GOP Rep. Jo Bonner resigned in August to take a position at the University of Alabama System, it’s also seen as the next chapter in the post-2012 election establishment vs. tea party movement fight for the soul of the GOP.
Bradley Byrne, a former state senator, is facing off against businessman Dean Young. Byrne has far outraised Young thanks to major help from the business wing of the party, including the Chamber of Commerce, and has garnered the endorsements from establishment figures, including several Republican House leaders.
Young, meanwhile, has gotten donations from a political action committee run by former Nevada Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle, a darling of the tea party movement, as well as endorsements from conservative talk show hosts Mark Levin and Erick Erickson, and a lot of support from Christian conservatives.
The district, in the southwest part of the state, is a Republican stronghold, and the winner of Tuesday’s GOP primary runoff is almost certain to win December’s general election.
While both men are conservative, the race may hinge on who is viewed as the most conservative. Byrne has said he would only vote to raise the debt ceiling if it is part of a larger deal, while Young has vowed not to support an increase at all and said over the weekend he would not vote for Republican John Boehner as House Speaker.
Because of the negative political impact of the 16-day government shutdown, which Americans mostly put at the feet of tea party-backed members of Congress, groups such as the Chamber of Commerce have said they will be more involved in primary fights next year. Their aim would be to elect candidates who don’t have such strident views and to help prevent tea party candidates from stopping their agenda of keeping the government open, pushing for comprehensive immigration reform and overhauling the tax code.
The GOP primary battle in Alabama may be an appetizer before more intra-party fights ahead in 2014.
Also on the ballot
New York is not the only major city holding a mayoral contest on Tuesday. Voters in Boston, Seattle, Detroit, and Cleveland are also electing mayors.
And voters in six states will be weighing in on 31 ballot measures. Among the most interesting: genetically modified food labeling in Washington state, a proposed special marijuana tax in Colorado, secession in 11 Colorado counties, and a push to raise New Jersey’s minimum wage to $8.25 per hour.