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updated 11/2/2009 1:59:42 PM ET 2009-11-02T18:59:42

It’s easy to pinpoint the elections held in an odd-numbered year — the “off-year” — that have clear national implications. That is because there are so few of them. This year, we count just three, all being held this coming Tuesday: The elections for governor in Virginia and New Jersey, and a hotly contested House special election in upstate New York's largely rural 23rd District.

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The bonus for avid political watchers is that the results of these key contests will be evenly spaced across Tuesday evening. The first poll closings will be in Virginia at 7 p.m. Eastern time. New Jersey will wrap up its voting at 8 p.m. Eastern. And votes will start to trickle in from that New York race after the 9 p.m. Eastern poll closing time.

The downside is that the race that has developed the most portent for where the elections are heading in 2010 — and where the Republican Party is heading into the future — is the one in which the polls are open latest. That’s because of the blockbuster developments in that New York House special, the kind of race that almost never draws a whole lot of national attention.

The contest — to fill the vacancy that developed when President Obama reached across party lines and tapped nine-term Republican Rep. John M. McHugh to become secretary of the Army — evolved into a fierce skirmish in the ideological “battle for the soul” of the Republican Party, which has been simmering since the GOP first lost control of Congress in 2006 and then the White House with Obama’s comfortable victory in 2008.

And the rift that this isolated House election has exposed threatens to become a schism as the result of the stunning events of the weekend before Election Day. Republican nominee Dede Scozzafava — a moderate who came under siege by prominent national Republicans and rank-and-file conservative activists supporting a third-party candidate running hard to her right — first suspended her campaign on Saturday, and then on Sunday endorsed Democratic nominee Bill Owens.

Local Republican officials in the far-upstate New York district, responding to the huge setbacks endured by their party in the Democratic-trending Northeast, nominated Scozzafava, whose support for abortion rights and gay rights and ties to organized labor marked her as one of the most liberal Republican House candidates in recent years. They made their choice under New York’s rules for House special elections, which exclude primaries and leave candidate nominations up to the parties’ organizations.

But activists on the right, who believe the party’s hopes for a comeback are staked on sticking firmly to the national party’s conservative agenda and persuading most American voters that they are right on the issues, rebelled and lined up with accountant Doug Hoffman, the nominee of New York’s small but feisty Conservative Party. And prominent conservative Republican leaders around the country, including 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, former New York Gov. George E. Pataki and several current members of Congress, fueled Hoffman’s surge in the polls by giving him their endorsements.

That turned the contest into a three-way race between Scozzafava, Hoffman and Owens. That is, until Saturday, when Scozzafava, her poll numbers tanking, quit the race. So the contest — a flat-footed tie between Owens and Hoffman in a pair of pre-election independent polls — will be decided by how the 20 percent or so who stuck by Scozzafava decide to break on Election Day. And it now will take some pretty stiff Republican loyalties to get the Scozzafava faithful to stick with the party, given that she has now urged them to cross over and vote for Owens.

Though this little House contest has grown to eclipse the major statewide races Tuesday, the basic story line of the off-year elections has not changed.

This is the first Election Day since 2008 when the national Democratic surge, which began in the 2006 cycle, culminated with the election of Obama as president and a major expansion of the party’s majorities in the Senate and House.

So Republican officials have been hoping for some needed comeback victories this November. A sweep of the big contests on Tuesday would bring added force to their claims that the public is turning against Obama’s assertive efforts to use the federal government to address the recession-plagued economy and other major problems — enshrined in the high-priced economic stimulus legislation enacted last February on a near-party line vote in Congress and the current push for a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s health care system.

Furthermore, a strong showing Tuesday would be spun by the party, and interpreted by many pundits, as a bellwether for a big Republican revival in the 2010 midterm elections.

But going into the campaigns’ final weekend, polls suggest a clear Republican advantage only in Virginia’s race for governor, with former state Attorney General Bob McDonnell leading Democratic state Sen. Creigh Deeds by double-digit percentages.

The New Jersey governor’s race, which for much of the year looked like Republican Chris Christie’s to lose because of Democrat Jon Corzine ’s cellar-dwelling job approval ratings, now appears a tossup, with strong third-party candidate Chris Daggett as a wild-card factor.

And it would be hard to find a race with a less predictable outcome than that in New York 23.

Virginia governor, 7 p.m. ET
The crucial region to watch as Virginia’s results come in is the populous suburban area outside Washington, D.C., in the northern part of the state.

This area generally voted Republican before the population boom of the past couple of decades, but it recently has trended Democratic — and tipped the balance to the Democrats in their signal victories this decade as they reversed a period of statewide GOP dominance: the races for governor in 2001 (won by Mark Warner) and 2005 (current incumbent Tim Kaine), for U.S. Senate in 2006 (Jim Webb) and 2008 (Warner again), and for president in 2008 (when Obama won by a 7 percentage-point margin to become the first Democrat to win the state’s electoral votes since 1964).

Although McDonnell’s base is in the southeastern Tidewater (aka Hampton Roads) region, polls show him running above par in Northern Virginia, in part because he was raised in suburban Fairfax County, in part because his campaign has taken a well-modulated approach that emphasizes economic and transportation issues and plays down the conservative social issues that long were major priorities in his past state legislative tenure.

Deeds has sought to regain momentum in Northern Virginia by portraying McDonnell as hiding radically social conservative views, wielding a thesis McDonnell wrote, when he attended a college founded by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, that conveyed very traditionalist views about the role of women in society and the workplace. But Deeds, a rare statewide Democratic nominee who hails from rural and mainly conservative western Virginia, just has not caught fire in this important region.

The other place to look is in the southeast, McDonnell’s home turf, but also home to many of Virginia’s black residents. A strong turnout among this overwhelmingly Democratic constituency is crucial to the party’s hopes in statewide contests.

If the polls are right and McDonnell is declared an early winner, look for the GOP to claim that the outcome was a declaration of voter dissent against Obama and the agenda of the national Democratic Party. They’ll want to do that quickly — just in case the other contests don’t turn out so well.

CQ Politics rates the Virginia race as Leans Republican.

New Jersey governor, 8 p.m. ET
If this were a straight-up contest between Democrat Corzine, the popularity-challenged incumbent, and Republican Christie, a former U.S. attorney, the focus would simply be on which candidate is better holding typical party margins and producing voter turnout in traditional areas of strength. For Corzine, that would be in urban centers such as Newark, Jersey City, Paterson and Camden and in the more liberal-leaning areas of the New York City and Philadelphia suburbs. For Christie, that would be the suburban and exurban areas, many of them affluent, that have stayed steadfastly Republican even as the state as a whole has trended strongly Democratic.

But the strong independent candidacy staged by Daggett, previously appointed by Republican state and federal administrations to high-ranking environmental policy posts, has knocked partisan presumptions off kilter. So a key thing to watch on Tuesday is whether Daggett’s strength in polls – he’s been drawing percentages in the teens – holds up, or if voters drift back, as they often do, to one of the major party contenders.

If Daggett is running well, the outcome of the race likely will be determined by whether he is eating more deeply into the vote that normally would be expected to accrue to either Corzine or Christie.

CQ Politics rates the New Jersey race as Tossup.

New York's 23rd District, 9 p.m. ET
The stunning decision by Republican House nominee Scozzafava to quit the race three days before Election Day means the tossup election there will be decided by one thing only: what the voters who remained loyal to her decide to do.

The Republican National Committee and its campaign arm, the National Republican Congressional Committee, had strongly supported Scozzafava, but turned on a dime after her dropout announcement Saturday to urge her backers to switch to Hoffman. And the party’s hopes of preventing yet another Democratic seat takeover in New York — where that party already holds 26 of the other 28 House seats — hinges almost completely on her voters being died-in-the-wool Republicans who are willing to suppress their disappointment and vote for Hoffman as the un-Democrat remaining in the race. If that were to happen, Hoffman almost certainly would win the election.

If her voters think she has been treated unfairly and was bullied out of the race, they are far more likely to take their cue from Scozzafava’s own defection Sunday and jump to Owens. And if they do, he could win by a comfortable margin. What makes this a highly plausible scenario is the fact that Owens, a politically moderate lawyer with a military background, is actually more conservative than Republican Scozzafava on key social issues.

Finally, Scozzafava’s name remains on the ballot, of course. So Republican backers who don’t want to vote for Democrat Owens but can’t abide the attacks launched against their candidate by Hoffman and his conservative supporters might cast what amounts to a protest vote for her. Or, they could just decide to stay home and not vote.

At stake is a district that, while no Democratic stronghold, is not the Republican bastion that it traditionally was. Though district voters in 2004 stuck with President George W. Bush as the Republican nominee, they did so by just a 4 percentage-point margin. And in a big breakthrough for the Democrats, Obama in 2008 carried the district for president by 5 points over Republican John McCain.

While McHugh kept the district in the GOP fold with a career’s worth of easy House victories, he was never a conservative firebrand and his voting record had in recent years become more moderate. His focus throughout his career was on defense-related issues — he was ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee at the time of his resignation, which was popular with most voters in a sprawling district that includes the Army’s Fort Drum.

As something of a political “Hail Mary” pass, Republican leaders over the weekend promised to place Hoffman on the Armed Services Committee if voters elect him on Tuesday.

So what we at CQ Politics will be watching Tuesday night as we try to call the winner in the House special election is how the county vote percentages for Democrat Owens and Conservative turned de facto Republican candidate Hoffman compare with those in the key 2008 contests. If Hoffman’s leads in key counties are anywhere near to those enjoyed by McHugh when he won re-election with 65 percent of the vote, he will score a big victory and the conservatives will claim justification for their rebellion. But if Owens’ vote is paralleling that for Obama in 2008, then the Democrats will likely be a step closer to a total monopoly on Northeastern House seats — and Scozzafava’s tormentors on the right will have scored a dramatically Pyrrhic victory.

CQ Politics rates the New York 23 race as Tossup.

California's 10th District, 11 p.m. ET
There is one other House special election on Tuesday, in California’s vacant 10th Congressional District — an island of calm compared with the rest of the day’s slate. It isn’t on the races-to-watch list because its outcome, in favor of the defending Democrats, appears a foregone conclusion.

Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, the Democratic nominee, is an overwhelming favorite to defeat Republican businessman David Harmer for the seat from which seven-term Democrat Ellen O. Tauscher resigned to take a high-ranking post in the State Department.

The 10th District, located in East Bay suburbs of San Francisco, is reliably Democratic. District voters gave 65 percent in 2008 to both Obama in the presidential contest and Tauscher as she won House re-election.

CQ Politics rates the California 10 race as Safe Democratic.

CQ © 2009 All Rights Reserved | Congressional Quarterly Inc. 1255 22nd Street N.W. Washington, D.C. 20037 | 202-419-8500

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