2013 showdowns: The top 5 races to watch


It may technically be an election off-year, but there’s no shortage of political drama and contests to pay attention to in 2013. From Virginia up to the Northeast and through New York City and New Jersey, here’s The Daily Rundown’s list of the top five races political junkies should be watching with less than four months until Election Day.

1. Virginia governor. There’s no denying this Old Dominion contest is the top race to watch this fall. The showdown between conservative Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe has been more than a year in the making.

Both candidates have obvious flaws–but which ones will weigh most heavily with voters in the key swing state? Democrats are eager to paint Cuccinelli as too conservative on social and women’s issues and out of step with a state that’s gone blue in the past two presidential elections. But the attorney general has a loyal conservative base – and that especially worries Democrats in a year where turnout is their biggest problem, and they must find a way to get Obama voters to the polls. After losing a 2009 primary bid, the former Democratic party fundraiser is running on his business credentials, but he’s come under scrutiny over his GreenTech electric car company, and still has a likability problem even within his own party.

Popular incumbent Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell may have been one of Cuccinelli’s biggest assets, and he’s clearly tried to pick up the McDonnell mantle, especially on the economy and jobs as a way to turn from social issues. But the newest twist to watch–how will McDonnell’s growing scandal over undisclosed gifts to benefit McDonnell’s family from one of the governor’s top political supporters impact the GOP nominee?

Polls have shown the race is too close to call, and since 1973, Virginia has elected a governor opposite the president’s party in the year immediately after a White House race. This contest likely won’t just be the closest on Election Night but also the nastiest this fall. While some may be eager to read into what a loss or win means for 2014 and beyond, this race may be more about the two flawed candidates than whatever issues each party has to confront within itself.

2. New York City mayor. The race to be Hizzoner is shaping up to be a contest between former Rep. Anthony Weiner and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, ushering in either the once-disgraced former congressman’s second political life or the city’s first female and openly gay mayor.

Quinn is running on her 14-year record on the city council as a contrast to Weiner’s thin resume, noting he passed only one bill while in office before he resigned in 2011 after sending lewd photographs to several women on social media sites. Weiner’s framed his comeback as not just one of redemption but of big ideas, putting out a “Keys to the City” policy program he says would keep the city’s middle class strong by addressing health care, the environment and crime.

The two are in a crowded field along with Comptroller John Liu, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and former Comptroller Bill Thompson. Early polling shows Weiner and Quinn neck and neck, and a runoff two weeks after the September 10 Democratic primary could be ahead – but keep an eye especially on Thompson, who’s in a strong third place and lost by less than five points as the Democratic nominee to independent Michael Bloomberg in 2009.

3. New Jersey governor. The better question in this race may be just how much Chris Christie wins re-election by. Democratic state Sen. Barbara Buono remains largely unknown and little financed with four months to go, and Christie is still the heavy favorite in this blue state, and in a new Quinnipiac Poll out Wednesday morning still has a more than 2-1 lead over Buono and a 68% approval rating.

Buono has tried to use last month’s Supreme Court decisions on gay marriage as a flashpoint, pointing out that Christie vetoed a bill passed by the legislature to legalize gay marriage; he said he believed it should go before voters on a referendum instead. There’s been a new push in the wake of the Court’s rulings, but Buono still has a tough road against Christie, and is trying anything to break through. In a new web ad, she paints Christie as someone with one eye already on Iowa for 2016.

Democrats may hope that Christie’s approval ratings can’t defy political gravity forever, but he remains extremely popular even with independents and many Democrats. And while many viewed his decision to hold an October Senate special election as one way to protect his own political future, that calculation hasn’t hurt the blunt, straight talking governor either.

4. New Jersey Senate special. If the Democratic primary were longer, maybe this could have developed into a real race. But with a two month sprint to the August 13 special election to succeed Sen. Frank Lautenberg, Cory Booker shows no signs of letting his early lead slip, leading by more than 40 points in recent polls.

Reps. Frank Pallone and Rush Holt have nothing to lose by taking a shot at the open race, and each has tried to find a way to differentiate themselves from the popular Newark mayor. Pallone got the backing of Lautenberg’s family–who got in some not-so-subtle jabs at Booker–and Holt has tried to play the “nerd” card by reminding voters he’s literally a rocket scientist. Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, a powerful figure in Trenton, hasn’t been a factor yet either. Booker’s the only candidate on the air, and while Pallone and Rush both have money, they need to start spending it soon. Even stories that dive into just how much Booker has helped Newark don’t seem to be breaking through and having an impact.

This will be a low-information, low-turnout primary with another low turnout general election on October 16, and Booker looks like the favorite in both.

5. Virginia lieutenant governor. National Democrats got a new political bogeyman when Republicans surprisingly nominated minister E.W. Jackson as their number two on this fall’s statewide ballot, where he’ll face Democratic state Sen. Ralph Northam.

Controversial statements from the newly minted GOP nominee quickly emerged, including a a YouTube video he posted last fall saying Planned Parenthood was worse than the KKK, calling abortion “the equivalent of an idolatrous offering to the god of ‘sexual license,’” and statements against gay marriage.

Jackson will be closely watched to see if he makes other gaffes or controversial statements, and Cuccinelli and other state Republicans have done a careful dance to be loyal Republicans while not fully embracing Jackson.

Still, this downballot race is almost as interesting as the top of the ticket, and if the governor’s race remains close or Cuccinelli starts to pull ahead, even some Democrats privately fret there could be a path to victory for Jackson. If Northam wins, he’s the party’s de facto nominee for the 2017 gubernatorial race.

Honorable mention. Colorado state legislative recalls. Keep an eye on possible recalls of Democratic legislators who supported the state’s stringent new gun control laws. There are challenges to prevent the recalls from going through, but the tussle shows that the divide over gun control isn’t just at the federal level, but goes even deeper at the state level. The results will give a glimpse into how swing state voters in Colorado see the debate.

2013 showdowns: The top 5 races to watch