Races to Watch in 2013

Reid Wilson

In the era of constant campaigning, politics never stops. While the White House moves on President Obama's second-term agenda and Washington debates the next fiscal cliff, immigration reform and potentially even gun control measures, the strategists and party officials who plot to elect them are already hard at work developing their approach to elections this year -- and laying the foundations for 2014.

From key governor's races to special elections to critical preparations for next year already underway, there's no rest for anyone weary of politics after last year's elections.

Virginia Governor's Race: Exit polls show the Old Dominion is fading and a new dominion ascending. The influx of government-dependent jobs in the Washington suburbs and diverse populations both north and around Richmond has put Virginia solidly in the swing column. And Democrats are on an undeniable winning streak: The Old Dominion has elected exactly one Republican -- incumbent Gov. Bob McDonnell -- to one of the state's top three jobs since 2003.

History argues that Republicans should be in strong position to keep the seat in their hands. In every election since John Dalton won in 1977, the party that doesn't hold the White House has won the governorship. But this year the streak is in danger: Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli stands far to the right of center, leaving even some in his own party openly questioning whether he can compete for the seat. Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who dropped out of the race after acknowledging he couldn't beat Cuccinelli at a state party convention, is still threatening to run as an independent, further jeopardizing Cuccinelli's chances.

But Democrats aren't making it easy on themselves. Former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe, one of the best fundraisers in his party, is Cuccinelli's likely opponent, and his reputation as a political insider isn't ideal at a time when politicians come in for special scorn. Still, McAuliffe is the favorite, if the new dominion has risen high enough.

An intriguing side-note: McAuliffe, a close ally of the Clinton family, has hired former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee executive director Robby Mook to run his campaign. Mook ran three states for Hillary Clinton's campaign in 2008 -- Nevada, Ohio and Indiana, all of which she won. If Mook proves himself again, he'll be on the short list for a top job, perhaps even as Clinton's campaign manager, if she runs in 2016.

New Jersey Governor's Race: Not many Republicans can claim they had a politically good year in 2012, but Chris Christie sure can. Christie got plenty of buzz as the potential vice presidential nominee who was never really on a short list, his handling of Hurricane Sandy was widely praised, and he lost his biggest rival when Newark Mayor Cory Booker said last month he would instead run for Senate.

With Booker out, Christie will likely face one of a handful of Trenton insiders in a state in which the legislature remains hugely unpopular. State Sen. Barbara Buono was the first Democrat to jump in; she raised an impressive $250,000 in her first month in the race, she said this week. State Senate President Stephen Sweeney has met with the Democratic Governors Association about running. And state Sen. Dick Codey is still considering a bid, fueled by a long-running feud with Sweeney. Rep. Bill Pascrell doesn't want to be left out of the conversation, either. None would pose the challenge to Christie that Booker would have.

New Jersey has a streak similar to Virginia's: The party that doesn't hold the White House has won the last six statewide elections, since Democrat Jim Florio in 1989. Christie is in good position to keep the streak alive.

Kentucky State House: When Republicans captured both chambers of the Arkansas House and Senate, they solidified control of every state legislature in the old Confederacy. Only a few bastions of Democratic control in non-Confederate Southern states remain. Kentucky's state House is one of those redoubts.

Republicans won the Kentucky State Senate after the 1999 elections. In 2012, Rep.-elect Andy Barr scored one of the few Republican victories by knocking off incumbent Democrat Ben Chandler in a Lexington-area seat. And though Democrats hold every statewide constitutional office, Republicans are confident they can pick up the ten seats required to win control of the 100-member legislature.

Observers of Kentucky politics think there's a major shift afoot. In the 1920s, the coal wars in West Virginia pitted mine workers against corporations, a battle that allied workers with the Democratic Party for nearly a century. The industry still plays a big role in the region, and Chandler grew nervous about what Republicans termed the Obama administration's War on Coal. If Republicans convert life-long Democratic voters to their cause this year, a shift back toward the GOP could be another century-long proposition.

Special Elections: When the 113th Congress convenes for the first time on Thursday, some seats will already be empty. Former Illinois Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. has already quit his Chicago-area seat; former South Carolina Rep. Tim Scott quit his Charleston-area seat on Tuesday to take over Sen. Jim DeMint's seat in the upper chamber; and Rep. Jo Ann Emerson will leave her Southeast Missouri seat to take a job as head of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. All three races are unlikely to be seriously competitive after parties pick their respective nominees.

The one race that could be competitive comes in Massachusetts, where Sen. John Kerry is likely to quit his seat after he's confirmed as Secretary of State. Outgoing Sen. Scott Brown, the Republican who first won his seat in a 2010 special election after Ted Kennedy passed away, is contemplating a comeback bid. 

This time, Democratic Party bigwigs including Kerry, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Kennedy's widow, have lined up behind Rep. Ed Markey, who has already jumped into the race. Others, most notably Rep. Mike Capuano, haven't ruled out their own run, but Markey is the prohibitive favorite.

Democrats realized after Brown's 2010 win that they hadn't done enough to nationalize the race in one of the few states where President Obama remained popular. They won't make that mistake again.

Candidate Recruitment: Picking the right candidate can make all the difference. In a midterm election without an overarching national wave, that's doubly important. "The fundamental lesson I learned coming out of the cycle is that the cycle--it’s not about 2014, it’s about 2013," Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Steve Israel said in an interview last month. "Our success was because we recruited early. We organized early."

That's a lesson Rahm Emanuel taught when he chaired the DCCC -- Emanuel sought out non-traditional candidates and political moderates before Democrats took over the House after the 2006 elections. And Republicans attracted their own mix of elected officials and eclectic professionals that bolstered the Tea Party wave of 2010.

Both national parties have started their search for A-list candidates. Israel was calling Democrats who narrowly lost on Election Night to start convincing them to run again. National Republicans have held their own meetings to create lists of potential stars. Both sides know the candidates they attract now can be the all-stars who take over seats next November.