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First Thoughts: Why tonight matters

Why tonight’s races matter… No state better reflects the center of American politics than Virginia; Christie is trying to run up the score to brandish his electability credentials for 2016; and de Blasio is trying to be NYC’s first Democratic mayor (and a liberal one at that)… Watching the Tea Party vs. the establishment… Watching the spin… Watching the turnout in VA… Watching the suburban and exurban counties in VA… And watching all the firsts that could happen tonight.

*** Why tonight matters: For all political reporters -- including us -- there’s always the danger of overstating the results from off-year or special elections, as well as their impact on future races. Turnout is smaller; you’re talking about just a sliver of Americans who are voting; and so much can change from now until 2014 and 2016. But the races tonight in Virginia, New Jersey, New York City, and even Alabama DO matter. The gubernatorial race in Virginia between Terry McAuliffe (D) and Ken Cuccinelli matters because no state has better reflected the center of American politics or the nation’s changing demographics than the Old Dominion over the past decade. In the last two presidential contests, the state's popular vote (Obama 53%-46% in '08; Obama 51%-47% in '12) exactly matched the national popular vote. What’s more, the Virginia gubernatorial race has often been a precursor for future campaigns (Barack Obama’s ’08 candidacy looked a lot like Tim Kaine’s from ’05; the GOP’s midterm campaigns borrowed heavily from Bob McDonnell’s victory in ’09). And then there’s this: Democrats possibly having control over both U.S. Senate seats (Mark Warner and Tim Kaine), the governor’s mansion (McAuliffe), lieutenant governor (Ralph Northam), and attorney general (Mark Herring) would be quite the feat in this key swing state. And probably says as much about the state of the GOP in this key swing state as it does about the Democrats.

*** Watching the races in VA, NJ, NYC, and AL: Chris Christie’s expected cakewalk to re-election in New Jersey matters because of 2016. A la George W. Bush’s 1998 re-election victory in Texas, Christie is trying to run up the score and show impressive exit-poll results among Democrats, independents, and minority voters -- all in an effort to brandish his electability credentials for a potential presidential bid. To hammer home the point, Christie toured the state yesterday with New Mexico’s Hispanic Republican governor, Susana Martinez… which of course elicited plenty of “is this a future ticket” jokes. New York’s mayoral election matters because Bill de Blasio (D) is the overwhelming favorite to become the first Democrat to win the office since 1989 (you read that right), and Joe Lhota (R) is finding out it isn’t easy being a Northeast Republican running for office (unless your name is Chris Christie). And the GOP congressional run-off in Alabama between Bradley Byrne and Dean Young matters because we’ll find out which side is winning the GOP’s ideological war in red states -- the establishment (Byrne) or the Tea Party (Young). Polls close in Virginia and 7:00 pm ET, in New Jersey and Alabama at 8:00 pm ET, and in New York City at 9:00 pm ET.

*** Watching the Tea Party vs. the establishment: But the biggest story of all, as we wrote last week, will likely be the contrast between Virginia (where Cuccinelli’s conservatism is on display) and New Jersey (where Christie’s electability is the dominant message). Remember, one man -- Cuccinelli -- spoke at this year’s CPAC conference, while another man -- Christie -- wasn’t invited. As CPAC’s chief organizer said of Christie’s snub, "This year, for better or for worse, we felt like, ah, like he didn't deserve to be on the all-star selection.” Bottom line: Tonight is shaping up to be a rough night for the Tea Party. The one exception, however, could be in Alabama, and that could be a BIG exception for folks like Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Thad Cochran (R-MS), Lamar Alexander (R-TN), and Pat Roberts (R-KS), who are facing primary challenges in red states. Chris Christie running on an electability message in blue New Jersey is one thing; Dean Young winning in Alabama on a vow to be one of the most conservative members of Congress is another thing -- which will tell us a lot more where the GOP currently stands. Then again, if Byrne wins, that would be quite a feather in the GOP establishment’s cap and probably would make those southern establishment Republicans feel a bit better about 2014.

*** Watching the spin: If tonight plays out like we expect it to, Democrats will be celebrating the outcomes in Virginia and New York City. “(If Terry McAuliffe can win in Virginia, we can win ANYWHERE!” “Our NYC mayoral candidate got 60%-70% of the vote!”) Meanwhile, Republicans will be crowing about New Jersey. (“Did you see Chris Christie win re-election by 20 to 30 points?”) But it would be a mistake for the two parties to focus only on their successes. For Democrats, yes Christie is popular, and yes Cory Booker decided to run for the Senate instead of governor. But how in this blue state did they not even run a competitive race, giving Christie several 2016 talking points? Did they inadvertently help STRENGTHEN Christie for 2016? For Republicans, has the party moved so far to the right and has its brand been damaged so much that McAuliffe -- who couldn’t even when the Democratic nomination in ’09 -- is likely going to be the state’s next governor, and Joe Lhota can’t even get a sniff from NYC voters?  

*** Watching the turnout: Focusing on Virginia’s gubernatorial race -- because it will be the closest contest of tonight’s major contests -- both the Cuccinelli and McAuliffe camps are expecting turnout to surpass 2 million votes, which would be higher than the turnout in 2009. In fact, the McAuliffe campaign believes that turnout WILL NOT be that low and it says matching the 40% that turned out four years ago is the “floor.” Here are the past turnout numbers:

2009: 1,985,103 (McDonnell 1,163,651 to 818,950) (40% turnout)

2005: 1,983,778 (Kaine 1,025,942 to 912,327) (45% turnout)

2001: 1,886,721 (Warner 984,177 to 887,234)

1997: 1,736,314 (Gilmore 969,062 to 738,971)

1993: 1,793,916 (Allen 1,045,319 to 733,527)

1989: 1,789,078 (Wilder 896,936 to 890,195)

1985: 1,343,243 (Baliles 741,438-601,652)

1981: 1,420,611 (Robb 760,357 to 659,398)               

*** Watching the suburbs and exurbs: As one of us wrote earlier this fall, it also will be instructive to watch the Virginia suburbs and exurbs to see who is winning tonight. In 2004, George W. Bush kept John Kerry below 70% in the Democratic strongholds of Arlington and Alexandria (right outside of D.C.). Bush also narrowly lost Fairfax County (also outside of D.C.). The former Republican president, however, won the swing counties of Loudoun (a D.C. exurb) and Henrico (outside of Richmond). But in 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama dominated the Virginia suburbs -- he exceeded 70% in Arlington and Alexandria; he won 60% of the vote in Fairfax; and he took the swing counties of Loudon and Henrico. The suburban vote also decided Virginia’s last gubernatorial contest. In 2009, Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell won Loudoun (61%-39%), Henrico (56%-44%) and Fairfax (51%-49%), while keeping his Democratic opponent Creigh Deeds below 70% in Arlington and Alexandria.

*** Watching all of the firsts: Finally, here is a list of all the firsts we might see tonight:

- It could be the first time since 1973 when the party that controls the White House wins Virginia’s gubernatorial race

- It could be the first time since 1985 when the winners of the VA and NJ gubernatorial contests came from different parties

- It could be the first time since 1985 when a statewide Republican candidate gets more than 50% of the vote

- It could be the first time that a Democrat wins New York’s mayoral contest since 1989

- It could be the first time since the early 1990s that Boston has a new mayor.

- And Detroit could have its first white mayor since the 1970s.

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