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2013 State and Local Election Preview

A breakdown of some of the most important races and ballot initiatives to watch.

The federal government shutdown and the crisis over the debt ceiling have sent the public’s ire at politicians to near-record highs. But Americans won’t be able to channel much of that anger at the ballot box this year. Election Day – which falls on November 5th this year – includes the fewest state-level contests of the quadrennial electoral cycle.

As usual for this point in the cycle, two governorships are being contested – New Jersey’s and Virginia’s. Virginia also has a lieutenant governorship and an attorney general contest, plus races in the state House. New Jersey has both legislative chambers up this year. But overall, the number of legislative seats up this year is “tiny – just 340 seats” out of 7,383 nationally, said elections analyst Tim Storey of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

A few states have noteworthy ballot measures in November. But the biggest crop of races this year are those that are most insulated from the agita in Washington – namely, dozens of mayoral contests, including races in many of the nation’s biggest cities.

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Here is a rundown of the key races for 2013.

Gubernatorial Races

New Jersey

Republican Gov. Chris Christie is cruising to a second term, leading Democratic state Sen. Barbara Buono by between 20 and 30 points in most recent polls. If anything, Christie’s lead is actually growing over time.


The GOP-held seat gubernatorial is open, as it is every four years due to Virginia’s unique one-term-and-out requirement for governors. While many voters express dissatisfaction with both of the major-party candidates, recent polls show Democrat Terry McAuliffe with modest but consistent leads over Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, perhaps aided by a backlash against the GOP in federal-employee-heavy Northern Virginia for its role in the government shutdown. Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis is in the high single digits in some polls, a fact that’s not helping Cuccinelli.

Statewide Races

Virginia lieutenant governor

State Sen. Ralph Northam became a heavy favorite to win the lieutenant governorship as soon as a state GOP convention dominated by evangelicals tapped a little-known pastor, E.W. Jackson, for the ticket. Jackson’s staunchly conservative views and penchant for controversial comments have left Northam well-positioned to win (and in the process, become the gubernatorial frontrunner for 2017).

Virginia attorney general

This is the closest of the three statewide races in the Old Dominion, observers say. Can the Democratic edge at the top of the ticket carry Democratic state Sen. Mark Herring across the finish line ahead of Republican state Sen. Mark Obenshain?

State legislatures

New Jersey (both chambers)

The status quo – Democratic control of both chambers – is expected to prevail, said Rutgers University political scientist David Redlawsk. His polling shows Democrats “holding a very large generic lead over Republicans for the legislature. A couple individual seats may be in play, but so far we don't see the legislature flipping for either house.”

Virginia (state House only)

The Virginia Senate, currently tied 20-20, is not contested this year, though depending on who wins the lieutenant governor and AG races, there could be some special elections in store for early 2014. For now, though, the GOP is expected to keep its strong edge in the House regardless of whether the Democrats sweep the three statewide offices.

Washington state special election

The state Senate seat vacated when Democrat Derek Kilmer was elected to Congress is the focus of a pitched (and, for a legislative seat, expensive) battle. The contest pits GOP state Rep. Jan Angel against the appointed Democratic incumbent, physician Nathan Schlicher. The chamber is currently controlled by a 25-24 Republican majority that depends the backing of two crossover Democrats, a wrinkle that has added significantly to the race’s profile. The Bremerton-based district is considered ideologically moderate, so either candidate is a plausible winner.

Ballot Measures

Colorado: education

Amendment 66, backed by Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, asks for nearly $1 billion in tax increases to support school reform and changes in how the state distributes money to school districts. The money would support early-childhood education, at-risk students, English-language learners, charter schools and locally determined innovations such as longer school days and years, according to the Denver Post. There haven’t been recent independent polls, but observers suggest that the measure faces a somewhat uphill battle in a state that, despite its swing nature, has often been wary of tax increases.

New York: casinos

A proposed constitutional amendment to permit as many as seven new casinos, primarily upstate, is on the ballot. It has the support of Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and has been approved twice by the Legislature. It’s been subject to heavy lobbying and spending by affected industries.

New York: judicial retirement age

A proposed constitutional amendment would raise the retirement age for state judges to 80.

Texas: reverse mortgages

Proposition 5 would allow seniors to purchase homes using reverse mortgages, making it the last state in the nation to allow the practice. Supporters, including AARP, say the proposition would streamline the process for seniors purchasing homes; others warn that the process can actually be more expensive up front.

Texas: state water funds

Proposition 6 would create a State Water Implementation Fund for Texas and the State Water Implementation Revenue Fund for Texas, to fund water projects in the state.

Washington state: ballot initiative process

Initiative 517, sponsored by frequent ballot initiative sponsor and small-government advocate Tim Eyman, would “set penalties for interfering with or retaliating against signature-gatherers and petition-signers; require that all measures receiving sufficient signatures appear on the ballot; and extend time for gathering initiative petition signatures.” It hasn’t gotten much establishment backing due to fatigue or skepticism about initiatives (and Eyman himself) but the wording sounds reasonable enough that it could end up passing.

Washington state: genetically modified foods

Initiative 522 would “require most raw agricultural commodities, processed foods, and seeds and seed stocks, if produced using genetic engineering as defined, to be labeled as genetically engineered when offered for retail sale.” The initiative has become a hotly contested, high-spending affair between industry (led by biotech giant Monsanto) and critics of genetically modified foods. A similar effort went down to defeat in California last year.

Mayoral Races


Incumbent Mayor Kasim Reed– a rising African-American star in the Democratic party – declined to seek higher office and is now cruising toward a second term.


Long-serving Mayor Tom Menino is stepping down. State Rep. Martin Walsh and city councilor John Connolly survived a crowded, nonpartisan preliminary round to reach the general. An early October Suffolk University poll had Connolly up by seven points, though 23 percent of respondents were undecided.


Interim mayor Patsy Kinsey – a Democrat filling out the term of Mayor Anthony Foxx, now the U.S. Transportation Secretary – is not running for a full term. Republican Edwin Peacock is facing off against Democrat Patrick Cannon. Democratic voters outnumber Republicans, but a series of three Republicans occupied the mayoral seat from 1987 to 2009.


Mayor Mark Mallory is not eligible to run for another term. Two Democrats are facing off in the general election -- Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls and former council member John Cranley.


Democrat Frank G. Jackson is seeking his third term as mayor and is expected to prevail over businessman Ken Lanci.


The Motor City is deeply troubled, both financially and politically. Mayor David Bing is not seeking another term. Mike Duggan, the former chief of the Detroit Medical Center, led Wayne County sheriff Benny Napoleon by a 2-to-1 margin, according to a September poll by EPIC-MRA for the Detroit Free Press and WXYZ-TV. Duggan, if he wins, would become the city’s first white mayor in four decades. Napoleon is African-American.


Democrat Annise Parker is seeking a third term, facing a field of seven candidates who are much less prominent. Parker came to national attention as one of the first gay big-city mayors.


Incumbent Tomas Regalado is a shoo-in for a second term.


Longtime Mayor R.T. Rybak is not seeking a new term, leaving a wide-open field of nearly three dozen potential successors. City Council member Don Samuels and former City Council president Dan Cohen were tied at 16 percent in a September Minneapolis Star-Tribune poll, followed by two candidates with greater establishment support and money -- Council member Betsy Hodges with 14 percent and former Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Andrew at 10 percent. Each these candidates except for Cohen are Democrats; Cohen is an Independent. In a twist, the city will be using a system of ranked-choice voting, in which voters choose their first, second and third-place candidates.

New York City

Bill de Blasio, the city’s public advocate, easily won the tumultuous Democratic primary and is the heavy favorite to win the general election, which would make him the first Democratic mayor of New York City since David Dinkins left office two decades years ago. The Republican nominee is Joe Lhota, the former chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.


Incumbent Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who entered office as one of the nation’s youngest mayors, is not seeking another term. Democratic City Council member Bill Peduto is the heavy favorite over Republican Josh Wander.

San Diego  

San Diego is holding a special election (Nov. 19). two weeks after Election Day to replace Democrat Bob Filner, who stepped down after a metastasizing sexual harassment scandal. The four leading candidates are City Council members Kevin Faulconer and David Alvarez, former state Assembly member Nathan Fletcher and former San Diego City Attorney Mike Aguirre. Of the four, all are Democrats except for Faulconer a Republican. The field also includes several less prominent candidates. If no one secures a majority, a runoff will be held between the top two finishers.

St. Paul, Minn

Chris Coleman, a Democrat, should have an easy time securing a third term.

St. Petersburg, Fla.

Bill Foster, the incumbent, faces former state legislator Rick Kriseman. The office is officially nonpartisan, but the race has turned increasingly partisan, with Republicans supporting Foster and Democrats backing Kriseman. The contest could go down to the wire.


Incumbent Mike McGinn trailed state Sen. Ed Murray by 20 points in an October SurveyUSA poll. Both are liberal candidates in a liberal city.


In a competitive contest, incumbent Mayor Dewey Bartlett, a Republican, faces former Mayor Kathy Taylor, a Democrat.


Nassau County (N.Y.) executive

The populous, swing county on Long Island features a rematch -- County Executive Ed Mangano, a Republican, faces the Democrat he narrowly ousted four years ago, Democrat Tom Suozzi. “Local elections in Nassau can be the canary in the coalmine. They can be a bellwether on what’s on voters’ minds in the suburbs nationally, and those voters will determine who controls Congress in 2014 and who wins the White House in 2016,” Hofstra University political analyst Lawrence Levy told CBS New York.

Whatcom County (Wash.) council

This is perhaps the most obscure yet important political battle in the nation on Election Day 2013. The “Bellingham Four” are four liberal candidates, two incumbents and two challengers, who are seeking seats on the council of Whatcom County, located in Washington state near Canada and the Pacific Ocean. “The outcome could affect the U.S. coal industry, trade relations with China, and the planet’s changing climate,” National Journal reported in May. At stake is the fate of the proposed $600 million Gateway Pacific Terminal, which would transport Wyoming coal to Asia – “enough to power 15 to 20 new coal-fired power plants a year,” the magazine reported. The council would have major sway over the proposed terminal.

Daniel Luzer is GOVERNING's news editor.
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