WASHINGTON — Republicans still might be celebrating their victories from November. Democrats still might be licking their wounds. And the public, frankly, still might be exhausted after a nearly yearlong presidential race. But ready or not, the 2005 campaign season is already upon us.
There are four marquee political contests this year: mayoral races in Los Angeles and New York, and gubernatorial face-offs in New Jersey and Virginia. For Democrats, all of these races — except for the one in L.A., where Democrats are already guaranteed to hold onto the office — represent excellent opportunities to rebound from their defeats in 2004. Unlike last year, when many of the key down-ballot races took place in GOP-friendly states, this year’s contests primarily occur on the Democrats’ home turf. And while Virginia is hardly a blue state, political analysts say this race is a toss-up, providing Democrats a solid chance to prove they can win in the South.
But winning in New York and Virginia, experts point out, won’t be easy for the Democrats. And even if they win these races, they say, it’s unlikely that the victories will actually foreshadow some kind of larger trend.
Virginia’s contest to replace term-limited incumbent Gov. Mark Warner may very well be the year’s most competitive — and most interesting — race. For starters, it takes place in a traditionally GOP state, where the Democrat Warner is very popular. Moreover, the major candidates in this race — Democratic Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine and Republican Attorney General Jerry Kilgore — are the political heirs, respectively, to two men who may very well run for president in 2008: Warner and U.S. Sen. George Allen, R-Va.
Not surprisingly, Kaine is trying to make the race a referendum on Warner, who by law is limited to just one term. Indeed, University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato notes that the ideological successors to popular one-term Virginia governors — like Democrat Gerald Baliles (who replaced former Democratic Gov. Chuck Robb), and James Gilmore (who took over for George Allen) — have traditionally won this race. "That is Kaine’s hope," Sabato said.
On the other hand, Kilgore’s plan is to stick to the GOP playbook in this fairly conservative state and brand Kaine as a liberal and death-penalty opponent. (Kaine does oppose the death penalty on religious grounds, but has said that if elected governor, he would be duty-bound to carry out state executions.) "They are saying, ‘He’s not Mark Warner’s younger brother. He’s John Kerry’s cousin,’" said RobertHolsworth, the director of the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government at Virginia Commonwealth University. In the 2004 presidential race, President Bush defeated Kerry in Virginia, 54 percent to 45 percent.
The wild card in this race, Sabato points out, is liberal GOP state Sen. Russ Potts, who might run as an independent and possibly drain support away from Kilgore. In addition, Kilgore faces a challenge in the June 14 primary from Warrenton, Va., mayor George Fitch; so far, Kaine doesn’t have any Democratic opposition.
Democrats also have a realistic, yet equally tough, chance to defeat incumbent New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg this November. After all, Democrats enjoy a more than 5-1 registration advantage over Republicans in the city. "On paper, this is one the Democrats —with their huge registration advantage — should have in their cap," explained Lee M. Miringoff, the director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion. But even with that advantage, he says, a Democrat hasn’t served as New York mayor since David Dinkins left office in 1993.
The Democrats vying to take on Bloomberg include former Bronx Borough president Fernando Ferrer, Rep. Anthony Weiner, city council speaker Gifford Miller, and Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields. Ferrer, who unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic mayoral nomination in 2001, leads this field, according to a January Quinnipiac University poll. The poll also shows Ferrer tied with Bloomberg, at 43 percent each, in a November matchup. But a more recent New York Times poll has Bloomberg losing in a hypothetical contest against an unnamed Democrat, 52 percent to 30 percent, and it shows him with just a 43 percent approval rating.
Bloomberg, though, seems to have some things going his way: He’s a liberal Republican in this liberal city; he has a good campaign team and more than enough personal money to spend in this race; and his poll numbers, despite being near rock-bottom a year ago, have begun to creep up. Some of the key issues that could go a long way toward deciding Bloomberg’s fate are gay marriage, the city’s Olympic bid, and the controversy over its proposed football stadium.
New York Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf says that defeating Bloomberg would do psychological wonders for Democrats across the nation. "Taking back the mayoralty would be significant in [boosting] Democrats’ spirit throughout the country," he said.
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Across the Hudson River, residents in New Jersey will head to the polls in November to choose a new governor. As in New York, Democrats have a sizable registration advantage here, and current Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Corzine has emerged as the overwhelming favorite to win this race — especially after Acting Gov. Richard Codey decided not to run, which prevented a bruising Democratic primary.
Douglas Forrester, Bret Schundler, and Paul DiGaetano are among the Republicans facing off on June 7 to challenge Corzine, and giving them hope are the ethics problems that hounded former Democratic Gov. James McGreevey, who resigned from office after disclosing that he had a gay affair with a man who was on the state payroll. Ingrid Reed, director of the New Jersey Project at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics, says McGreevey’s resignation might have created political instability in the state, and she also notes that Republicans — at least at the presidential level — have made gains in the state. In fact, in 2000, Al Gore beat Bush in the state by 16 percentage points; last year, Kerry’s margin of victory over Bush was reduced to just 7 points.
But Reed also argues that Republicans have many obstacles to overcome to defeat Corzine. "The Republicans still have got to get their act together," she said. "Can they get organized? Can they raise the money?"
The final notable contest of 2005 is the race for Los Angeles mayor, and it’s one the Democrats are guaranteed to win. In this non-partisan contest, all five of the candidates — incumbent Mayor James K. Hahn, former California Assembly speaker and current city council member Antonio Villaraigosa, fellow former Assembly speaker Bob Hertzberg, former L.A. police chief Bernard Parks, and state senator Richard Alarcon — are all Democrats.
The primary occurs on March 8 and, assuming no one candidate gets more than 50 percent, the top two finishers will compete in a May 17 run off. Observers say the race could once again come down to Hahn and Villaraigosa, who dueled in the 2001 runoff. But they also note that Hertzberg could possibly play spoiler.
Even if Democrats manage to win all these races, however, some experts are unconvinced that it will mean something larger for the smorgasbord of House, Senate and governor contests in 2006, and the presidential battle in 2008. Indeed, four years ago, Democrats won all of these races (minus the one in New York City) — but still lost control of the Senate in 2002 and failed to win back the White House in 2004. "I’ve never seen a correlation that what happens here is what happens nationally," Sabato said of Virginia’s gubernatorial race. "People are just trying to pick someone to govern the state for four years. That’s why a Democrat can win here. It really doesn’t say much beyond that."
Nevertheless, for a Democratic Party trying to find itself and build momentum going into 2006 and 2008, winning this year in Virginia and elsewhere is an outcome it would take in a heartbeat.
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News. NBC’s Kasie Hunt contributed to this article.