After a hard-fought and highly charged presidential battle in 2012 — not to mention Congressional races and redistricting — one might hope that 2013 would provide a respite from campaign politics. No such luck.
The transition from the first Obama administration to the second is expected to produce at least one high-profile Senate special election (in Massachusetts). More specials could be around the corner if the president looks to Congress to fill other Cabinet vacancies.
There are House specials under way as well due to resignations, giving no rest for the weary political class — and a continued revenue stream for a small handful of campaign consultants.
The 2013 specials are in addition to the two off-year gubernatorial races on tap this year in Virginia and New Jersey: two states worth watching for very different reasons. Virginia, especially, will be fascinating to watch, and the battle in the commonwealth ranks No. 1 on our list.
Here are the top five races we are watching in 2013:
Virginia Gubernatorial Race
Given its timing and proximity to Washington, D.C., the race is routinely the most closely watched of the off year. But it’s the cast of characters involved that ensures this will be the most captivating campaign over the next 10 months.
The general election nominees are pretty much already decided, so voters will have an extended period of time with an up-close look at the race between Republican state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, left, and former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, right — two polarizing candidates unlikely to pull any punches.
Virginia has become a bellwether state of late in presidential contests. No state has come closer in both the 2008 and the 2012 elections to mirroring the national popular vote than Virginia. While President Barack Obama won both, the bright side for Republicans is that the past eight gubernatorial winners in Virginia have hailed from the party that lost the presidential election the year before.
With the midterms just around the corner, the national parties also generally use this race as a testing ground for get-out-the-vote operations and grass-roots targeting.
The victorious party will also surely feel a surge of momentum heading into the next federal election year. The 2009 victories by Republican Govs. Bob McDonnell of Virginia and Chris Christie of New Jersey kicked off a strong year for Republicans that included winning the Massachusetts Senate special election and taking back control of the House.
Massachusetts Senate Special
Expected early summer
With the expected confirmation of Democratic Sen. John Kerry as secretary of State, Massachusetts will have a Senate special election for the second time in three years. In the 2010 special, Republican Scott P. Brown won an upset victory catapulting him to celebrity status. But in November, he was defeated by a Democrat, now-Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
National Democrats are keen to avoid a repeat of 2010, and Kerry, along with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, is backing Rep. Edward J. Markey. They’ve done their best to clear the primary field for him. Indeed, at press time, he had no declared opponents for the Senate seat. Democratic Reps. Michael E. Capuano and Stephen F. Lynch are considering bids, as is a local rabbi, Jonah Pesner.
Markey comes to the race with some strengths: He has millions of dollars in the bank and strong D.C. establishment support. But his weaknesses could prove to be problematic. Markey hasn’t run in a serious race for decades, he’s weighted with more than 30 years of being a Washington, D.C., politician, and the grass roots in Massachusetts have been slow to coalesce around him.
Brown has not yet made an announcement about whether he is running, but insiders in Massachusetts expect him to pull the trigger. If he doesn’t, there’s really not much of a Republican bench in the Bay State.
All in all, this should be a relatively easy race for Markey, but he’ll have to work to make it that way.
South Carolina’s 1st District Special
March 19 primary; April 2 runoff
The safely Republican coastal district formerly represented by now-Sen. Tim Scott, a Republican, offers an outlet for the ambition of a wide array of candidates, some serious and some less so, in a tightly compressed primary season.
The immediate front-runner is former Palmetto State Gov. Mark Sanford, who looks poised to announce a bid to return to his old congressional seat.
Known as a staunch fiscal conservative during his six years in the House and eight years as governor, Sanford rose to national and international fame for disappearing from the state for days in 2009 and then admitting to an extramarital affair with a woman from Argentina. He had told his staff he was hiking on the Appalachian Trail — which immediately became a punchline for late-night comedians.
But what he would bring to the race is no joke: strong name identification — South Carolinians know who he is — and access to a significant fundraising network. That’s likely to land him as one of the top two finishers in the March 19 primary. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote — and the expectation is that no one will — a runoff will be held April 2.
Other top-tier candidates include state Rep. Chip Limehouse and Teddy Turner, the son of TV mogul Ted Turner. Turner has launched a bid with the backing of a top team of GOP consultants to help him. State Sen. Larry Grooms and former Sen. John Kuhn are also expected to enter the race as serious contenders.
Because Sanford will start with such an advantage in name identification, other candidates will probably have to use their resources to boost their own name identifications as opposed to knocking the former governor. But in a runoff election, the gloves are likely to come off.
Filing begins Jan. 18. Whoever wins the runoff will be the next congressman, as Democrats aren’t expected to contest the heavily Republican district.
Illinois’ 2nd District Special
Feb. 26 primary
It’s a predominantly Democratic district, and the winner of the Feb. 26 primary will probably hold the seat for as long as he or she wants it. So what’s so special about this low-profile race for former Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr.’s South Side Chicago district?
Change is coming to the Windy City — and the Congressional Black Caucus. The winner of this contest will likely signal a new generation of political leadership both in black politics in Chicago and on Capitol Hill.
Jackson, 47, was the youngest in the trio of black congressmen from Illinois by nearly 20 years: Nine-term Rep. Danny K. Davis is 71 and 11-term Rep. Bobby L. Rush is 66. Jackson was a rising star, boosted by his position on the Appropriations Committee, until he resigned in the wake of a federal investigation.
Regardless, 2nd District voters have many choices for Jackson’s successor. The better-known roster of candidates includes Alderman Anthony Beale, former Rep. Debbie Halvorson (pictured above), former NFL linebacker Napoleon Harris, state Sen. Toi Hutchinson, Cook County Chief Administrative Officer Robin Kelly, former Rep. Mel Reynolds and health care administrator Joyce Washington.
In such a large field, every advantage helps. The large number of candidates also makes it possible for a white candidate to win this black-majority district.
A white winner would be a devastating blow to black leadership in Chicago, home of the nation’s first black president and prominent black politicians in the 20th century — including Jackson’s father. It would also mean one fewer young black members for the CBC.
But the primary’s math makes it possible. Halvorson, who is white, has strong name identification after challenging Jackson in the primary last year (she was walloped). She hails from the southwestern part of the district. If the other candidates split their geographical bases, she can win by running down the middle.
New Jersey Gubernatorial Race
They are desperate to stop his control of state government, but moreover, they see it as their duty to the national party to put a serious dent in his chances as a 2016 presidential contender.
But they may not have much of a chance. They have no blockbuster candidate to challenge Christie, and his approval ratings soared after his handling of Hurricane Sandy — so much so, he has even earned the friendship of Bruce Springsteen, although a political alliance is highly unlikely.
Democrats insist that Christie’s high approval numbers are soft and will not hold up in November.
But they have a recruitment problem. Many were banking on Democratic Newark Mayor Cory Booker to run. Instead, he passed on the race and is pursuing a 2014 Senate bid. Democratic Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. publicly echoed private complaints that Booker took too long to come to his decision and the field of Christie challengers suffered as a result.
So those who are on the radar lack national fame. The possible Democratic contenders include: state Sen. Barbara Buono (who has officially declared), state Sen. Dick Codey, Pascrell and state Senate President Steve Sweeney.
The situation is so dire that many Democrats are even beginning to discuss a Democratic nominee as using the race as a platform for future statewide runs.
New Jersey is a solidly Democratic state, so anything is possible. Democrats have the will to win. They just may not have the candidate.