Voters headed to the polls Tuesday for a series of off-year elections, including high-profile contests in Virginia and New Jersey that could offer nationally resonant lessons for Republicans and Democrats alike.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is poised to win a second term, a rare feat for a Republican running in deep-blue New Jersey. In Virginia, an emerging swing state, longtime Democratic money-man Terry McAuliffe has built a steady lead over his deeply conservative opponent, GOP Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.
The two races have highlighted the GOP’s struggle to reconcile its establishment wing with its insurgent conservative class. A victory for McAuliffe would also add credibility to Democrats’ efforts to claim Virginia – once an unambiguous GOP foothold – as a toss-up state, if not Democratic-leaning.
Here's the lowdown on Tuesday's elections:
New Jersey: Gov. Chris Christie vs. Barbara Buono
Christie is cruising to re-election by fashioning himself as a relative centrist. He embraced President Barack Obama in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy just days before the 2012 presidential election, and had harsh words for fellow Republicans in Congress who held up relief money. The pugnacious governor has also resisted serving up some of the most strident attacks on Democrats favored by a number of other Republican luminaries.
According to a Quinnipiac University poll released Monday, Christie leads his Democratic challenger, state Sen. Barbara Buono, 61 percent to 33 percent among likely voters. The poll found that 64 percent of independents and 30 percent of Democrats back a second term for Christie.
A broad victory by Christie would also bolster a possible bid for the presidency in 2016. As a potential presidential candidate, Christie could point to his track record in winning over centrists, women and minority voters as part of a bid for the Republican nomination – much like George W. Bush did after his sweeping 1998 re-election as Texas governor.
Virginia: Terry McAuliffe vs. Ken Cuccinelli vs. Robert Sarvis
In contrast to Christie, Cuccinelli’s effort to appeal to centrists in the state has been inhibited by the litany of deeply conservative statements and legislative initiatives he’s spearheaded throughout his career.
Democrats have pummeled the state attorney general with ads about abortion rights, environmental issues and health care, especially for women. McAuliffe’s efforts to cast his opponent as an extremist have only been bolstered by some Virginia Republicans, who had either endorsed McAuliffe or spoken critically of Cuccinelli.
Early on, Republicans believed that negatively defining McAuliffe would be easy, especially given his longtime ties to the Clintons and several questionable business ventures, especially with the struggling GreenTech electric car company. But social issues and Cuccinelli’s conservatism became the dominant drag.
In the race’s closing days, Cuccinelli has tried to turn the race into a referendum on the president’s health-care plan, pointing to its shaky website rollout and individual plans being cancelled, but it looks to be too little too late.
A separate Quinnipiac University poll released Monday found McAuliffe ahead of Cuccinelli, 46 percent to 40 percent, among likely voters. Libertarian Robert Sarvis drew 8 percent. Independents are split between the two major candidates, but McAuliffe benefits from a 14-point advantage over Cuccinelli among likely women voters.
The downballot contests to watch for
While the contests in Virginia and New Jersey headlined Tuesday’s slate of elections, a series of mayoral contests and a special election to a vacant U.S. House seat formed the 2013 undercard.
- In New York City, Bill de Blasio looks to be on the verge of becoming the first Democratic mayor since 1993. De Blasio took charge in the Democratic primary earlier this year after various contenders – City Council President Christine Quinn and former Rep. Anthony Weiner among them – flamed out. De Blasio also invigorated liberals with an unapologetically progressive campaign oriented toward re-orienting New York’s policies toward its poor and working class, and by opposing law enforcement tactics like “stop and frisk.” He owns a commanding lead over Republican challenger Joe Lhota in most polls.
- In Alabama’s first congressional district, Tuesday’s run-off for the Republican nomination serves as the de-facto election in this deeply conservative Mobile district. The race has become another test of Republican establishment muscle versus Tea Party fervor. Most Washington Republicans and business groups have invested heavily on behalf of Bradley Byrne, an attorney and former state senator who switched to the GOP from the Democratic Party in 1997. But Tea Party activist Dean Young has stayed surprisingly competitive in the race, despite his strident views on gay rights and his (false) pronunciation in an interview last week that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya.
- Bostonians are poised to pick their first new mayor in two decades, with the legendary Tom Menino not seeking re-election. City Councilor John Connolly had been edging state Rep. Marty Walsh for most of the race, but the most recent polls have shown it’s Walsh with the late momentum and a narrow lead, largely fueled by a surge in minority voters and a boost in spending from labor groups.
- A bankrupt Detroit looks to pick its next mayor, who will be largely powerless, at least at first, with the city under control of a state-appointed emergency manager. Mike Duggan, the former head of the Detroit Medical Center, who had to wage a write-in campaign to just make it into Tuesday’s runoff after he was ruled ineligible for the primary ballot due to a residency issue, now looks like the heavy favorite over Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon. If he wins, Duggan would be the first white mayor of the heavily African-American Motor City since the early 1970s.
- One bright hope for Republicans in Virginia could be in the state attorney general’s race, where Republican Mark Obenshain is locked in a tight contest with Democrat Mark Herring. GOP observers note Obenshain has run a more independent, and largely smarter, campaign than Cuccinelli and has the best chance of victory. But Democrats and outside groups, eyeing a sweep that hasn’t happened in nearly three decades, have poured money into tying Obenshain to Cuccinelli in the closing days.
- In Washington state, voters will cast ballots on a ballot initiative that would require labeling foods containing genetically modified ingredients, which would become the first such law of its kind on the books in a state.
- In Colorado, voters are weighing whether to approve a 25 percent tax on marijuana, the recreational consumption of which was legalized by voters last year.
NBC's Jessica Taylor contributed to this report.
First published November 5 2013, 12:46 PM