Election Day 2013 might lack the fireworks of last year’s presidential campaign, but races in Virginia, New Jersey, and New York carry some national lessons, especially about the fault lines in today’s Republican Party.
Here are five storylines we’re following today:
1. Tale of Two GOPs: Christie vs. Cuccinelli
The GOP is as divided as ever, and there’s no better example of that than the candidates the party fielded in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial elections.
Gov. Chris Christie (R) is expected to coast to reelection in the traditionally blue state of New Jersey. Polls show him leading Democrat Barbara Buono by nearly 30 points.
Christie is poised to be the first Republican to win over 50 percent of the vote statewide since 1988. And the potential GOP presidential candidate seems to be sending a message to his party ahead of 2016: It’s OK to be a moderate.
Christie has tacked away from the right on some key issues, like Medicaid expansion, in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants and property-tax rebates.
But moreover, he's campaigned on an image of competent management over the ideological purity demanded by the Tea Party.
The New Jersey governor has taken an inclusive approach to campaigning, reaching out to constituencies—like Latinos and urban voters—that are traditionally thought of as unwinnable for Republicans.
Ken Cuccinelli, Virginia’s Republican gubernatorial candidate, has taken a different tack than Christie.
The commonwealth’s attorney general is trailing Democrat Terry McAuliffe by almost seven points, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average.
During Cuccinelli’s time in the state Senate, he backed restrictions on birth control and abortions, including a controversial “personhood” bill in 2007. While those positions endeared him to his conservative base, it opened him up to attacks that resonated with female and suburban voters, who have played a critical role in turning Virginia from a red state into a purple state.
Cuccinelli's positions on climate change and immigration also do not help him with middle of the road voters. And he's had trouble crafting an image separate from his record on social issues, like one based on jobs and the economy.
Fifty-four percent of Virginia likely voters found the Tea Party favorite Cuccinelli to be “too conservative,” according to a recent Washington Post/ABT-SRBI poll.
Cuccinelli’s weakness with these voters opened the door for Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe, a controversial former Clinton fundraiser, to win the race.
If Cuccinelli loses in a key swing state, and Christie wins in a blue one, it could trigger yet another debate among Republicans on how to win future national elections. Expect the Tea Party crowd to take the heat.
2. Demographics Equal Destiny
Christie’s campaign has also painted a picture of how Republicans can win in a more diverse America while Cuccinelli’s has fallen prey to the same problems that plagued the GOP in the last two presidential elections.
Like the rest of the country, New Jersey’s electorate has become less and less white. And Christie has made a point to reach out to voters of color. Christie is winning 55 percent of non-white voters, according to the latest Rutgers-Eagleton poll.
That's a pretty astounding number for a Republican candidate.
On Monday night, Christie campaigned in Union City, N.J., which is about 85 percent Hispanic and one of the most densely populated cities in the U.S. Its Democratic mayor, Brian Stack, has endorsed Christie.
Reaching out beyond white voters has been instrumental to Christie. Thirty-one percent of voters in New Jersey last year were black, Latino or Asian.
“Christie’s efforts to court black and Hispanic voters seem to be paying off much better than might have been expected,” David Redlawsk, director of the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll and professor of political science at Rutgers University, said in a statement.
In Virginia, rapidly growing Latino and Asian populations have driven the share of the non-Hispanic white population down to 64 percent.
Virginia Democrats have done a good job of mobilizing Latinos in statewide and national elections. This year is no different. Cuccinelli's hardline positions on immigration have made him an easy target of Democrats.
President Obama won 64 percent of Virginia Latino voters in 2012, helping him win the state. And McAuliffe is poised to perform similarly well.
3. Lack of Big-City GOP Mayors
When Bill de Blasio wins the New York City mayoral race, it will be the first time the Big Apple is run by a Democrat since 1993.
Across the country, the GOP's clout has declined in major cities. In 2000, half of the nation's 12 biggest cities had a Republican mayor. Now you have to go down the list to Indianapolis, the 13th largest city, to find a GOP mayor, Politico reported last month.
The GOP's tarnished brand — from the government shutdown, social issues, and battle over Hurricane Sandy relief, etc. — has damaged de Blasio's Republican opponent, Joe Lhota.
Lhota has slammed the Tea Party as “extremist” and opposed shutting down the government to defund Obamacare.
“Anybody who wants to tag me with what’s going on in Washington is going to be making a very, very big mistake,” Lhota said earlier this month, according to the New York Post.
4. Money Machine
If you’re concerned about the amount of money that’s influencing politics, the Virginia governor’s race is probably giving you migraines.
With few other competitive elections this year, Virginia’s gubernatorial race has seen a massive amount of money pour in from donors nationwide.
Democrat Terry McAuliffe has outraised Republican Ken Cuccinelli $34.4 million to $19.7 million, according to the Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP). Through the end of September, McAuliffe received 72 percent of his funds from outside Virginia and Cuccinelli got 64 percent of his money outside the commonwealth.
Negative TV ads have blanketed the airwaves. Overall, McAuliffe and his allies outspent pro-Cuccinelli forces on TV $19.5 million to $11.1 million, according to VPAP.
Campaign-finance restrictions are almost non-existent in Virginia. Candidates and parties must disclose their donors and can't accept money from foreign sources. But they can take unlimited donations directly from individuals, unions, and corporations
Super PACs, which can also take in unlimited donations, had a big impact on the the 2012 presidential race, and we saw a similar effect in Virginia this year.
5. Colorado’s Pot Tax
One ballot initiative we're watching is a Colorado proposal to place a tax on marijuana sales, which were legalized last year.
The ballot initiative would impose a 15 percent excise tax on pot to pay for school construction and a 10 percent sales tax to fund pot enforcement, the AP reports.
Some activists oppose it, since the taxes are higher than those on alcohol sales. Anti-tax activists even passed out free joints at one protest. But beyond that, the actual windfall from the tax is still unclear.
Jordan Fabian is Fusion's politics editor, writing about campaigns, Congress, immigration, and more. When he's not working, you can find him at the ice rink or at home with his wife, Melissa.