Two states will elect governors Tuesday, and one of those governors could emerge as a 2016 presidential contender. The nation’s largest city will elect a mayor, as will hundreds of other communities. A minimum-wage hike is on the ballot. So is marijuana legalization. So is the labeling of genetically-modified foods. And Seattle might elect a city council member who promises to open the fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage.
Forget the silly dodge that says local and state elections don’t tell us anything. They provide measures of how national developments—like the federal government shutdown—are playing politically. They give us a sense of whether the “War on Women” is widening the gender gap. They tell us what issues are in play, and the extent to which the political debate is evolving.
Here are some signals to watch for as the results come in tonight:
1. Have Republican Extremists Finally Gone Too Far?
Since the Republican Party became competitive in Virginia, no Democrat has ever been elected governor when a Democrat was in the White House. Indeed, the last Democratic president to see a Democrat take charge in the Old Dominion state was Lyndon Johnson.
So if Democrat Terry McAuliffe is elected Tuesday, there’s a message there—and it could tell us a lot about the evolving politics not just of Virginian, but of the United States as it heads toward the critical mid-term elections of 2014.
It has something to do with the extremism of Republicans at the state level when it comes to social issues. The Republican nominee for governor of Virginia, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, is pretty much the embodiment of the social conservatism that has the potential to create a permanent gender gap. But past Republican nominees in Virginia have been opposed to abortion rights and marriage equality. What made things even rougher for Cuccinelli was a mid-campaign government shutdown shocked and outraged Virginians—a lot of whom happen to be federal employees. President Obama made that point in a pre-election campaign swing on behalf of McAuliffe. “You’ve seen an extreme faction of the Republican Party that has shown again and again and again that they’re willing to hijack the entire party and the country and the economy and grind progress to an absolute halt if they don’t get 100 percent of what they want,” the president told Virginians. “You cannot afford to have a governor who is thinking the same way.”
If McAuliffe, a first-time candidate with plenty of baggage as a veteran campaign fund-raiser and fixer, wins big on Tuesday, the message Democrats will take away from the election is that Ted Cruz and the shutdown caucus have handed them a political hammer. And they will use it again and again and again in 2014.
2. Is Chris Christie as Big a Deal as Chris Christie Thinks Chris Christie Is?
The Republican governor of New Jersey has mounted a reelection campaign that reaches out not just to Republicans but to Democrats and independents. He’s even made nice with Barack Obama. Why? Not because he likes Obama. What Christie likes is winning—big. And he knows that a big enough win could make him a serious contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.