I'm not going to sit here and pretend that what happens at the polls Tuesday is going to tell us what it means for President Obama's agenda or how it will portend the 2010 or even 2012 elections. These off-year elections — the ones that take place a year after the election of a president — really encompass only two gubernatorial races (Virginia and New Jersey), a handful of mayoral contests and maybe one or two other things to watch. Hardly a national referendum.
But sometimes what comes out of these races makes us sit up and take notice. In 1989, the issue of abortion was front and center in the two gubernatorial races, and it helped elect Democrats Jim Florio in N.J. and Doug Wilder in Va. Wilder was the first African-American elected governor since Reconstruction, an election that also coincided with David Dinkins becoming New York City's first black mayor. The Democrats' ability to run successfully on the issue of abortion, as well as their assembling multi-racial coalitions, helped them take the White House at their next opportunity, in 1992.
Similarly, in 1993, a year after Bill Clinton's election, Republicans wrestled the governorships away from the Democrats in both states, and they also won the mayoralty in five-to-one Democratic New York City. A sign of things to come for the GOP? Well, the next year the party won control of both the House and Senate for the first time since 1952.
Then again, sometimes these elections tell us nothing. Look no further than 2001, when Democrats recaptured the governorships in Virginia and New Jersey — a scant few weeks after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. And yet, the following year, Republicans made historic gains in Congress, with 9/11 being a major factor.
So we'll no doubt have a lot of interpretations of what Tuesday's elections mean. But that will be for Wednesday. For now, here's a quick look at what we'll be watching:
New Jersey — There is no way anyone looking at the state's economy can say things are better now than they were four years ago. Jon Corzine (D), who quit the Senate four years ago to seek the governorship, knows that. His negatives remain high. But, with the help of millions of dollars in attack ads — much of it financed from the wealth he attained as a former Goldman Sachs executive — as many voters see the race as a referendum on his Republican opponent, former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie, as they do on Corzine's performance of the past four years. Christie had hoped to use his reputation as a crime-fighting former Justice Department official to topple Corzine, and in fact, he had a double-digit lead in the polls for much of the year. The race is considered a tossup. Complicating the race is the presence of an independent on the ballot, Chris Daggett. Some polls indicated he was taking more from Christie than from the governor, but as Nov. 3 approached, his numbers began to shrink.
Virginia — Democrats have won the last two gubernatorial races here, in addition to replacing both Republican senators with Democrats in the past two election cycles. And Barack Obama carried the commonwealth in his bid for president last year, the first Democrat to do so since LBJ in 1964. But there's no evidence that the enthusiasm Obama generated in 2008 is being duplicated by this year's gov nominee, state Sen. Creigh Deeds. He trails anywhere from 11 to 18 points in polls against Bob McDonnell, the former state attorney general, whose political roots go back to Pat Robertson and the conservative movement, but who has run as a centrist, issue-oriented candidate focusing on transportation and tax issues. At one point, it looked as if McDonnell had given the Democrats an issue they could run with: the discovery of a 1989 thesis that expressed his doubts, if not hostility, about working women and feminism. But the emerging brouhaha never became the "Macaca moment" the Dems were hoping for, and whispers coming out of the White House complain about Deeds being a poor candidate.
California 10th CD (vacated by Democrat Ellen Tauscher, who took a job with the State Department) — In a district that has an 18-point Democratic advantage, Lt. Gov. John Garamendi (D) is favored over attorney David Harmer (R), whose father served briefly as Ronald Reagan's lt. gov. in the 1970s.
New York 23rd CD (vacated by Republican John McHugh, now the Secretary of the Army) — If this race was portrayed as a battle between conservatives and moderates for the soul of the Republican Party, the battle is over. The conservatives won. After Obama plucked McHugh out of the House, GOP leaders nominated Dede Scozzafava, a 10-year state assemblywoman. But from the beginning, conservatives viewed the choice of Scozzafava with alarm over her pro-abortion rights, pro-gay marriage record. In New York, they had another option. Doug Hoffman, a wealthy conservative who had angled for the GOP nomination, was picked as the candidate of the Conservative Party. And suddenly, right-leaning Republicans from around the country began to rally around Hoffman, who was endorsed by the anti-tax Club for Growth, as well as national figures such as Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty, Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson. For the longest time, it appeared that the split in the GOP between the Scozzafava and Hoffman forces would elect the Democratic candidate, Bill Owens — this, in a district that has had Republican congressional representation ever since there was a Republican Party. But as her fundraising stalled, her numbers were tanking as well; last week's Siena College poll showed her well back in third place, with 20 percent. On Saturday, she withdrew from the race, and the next day she endorsed the Democratic candidate.
Atlanta — The city has had a continuous string of black mayors, starting with Maynard Jackson in 1973. But the leading candidate is a white woman, City Councilmember Mary Norwood. If she doesn't get a majority of the vote on Tuesday, the race goes to a December runoff. Mayor Shirley Franklin is term-limited.
Boston — Thomas Menino, already the city's longest-serving mayor, is favored in his fifth-term bid against City Councilor Michael Flaherty, despite an ongoing scandal about liquor licenses and deleted emails that have bedeviled City Hall.
Houston — If elected, Annise Parker, the city controller, would become the first openly gay woman to win in a major American city. Mayor Bill White is term-limited.
New York — Michael Bloomberg, the lifelong Democrat who became a Republican in 2001 to run for mayor and who left the GOP in 2007 to become an independent, is the Republican-Independent candidate for a third term. A multi-billionaire, he has spent close to $100 million — the most of any candidate in history — in his bid against Democratic nominee William Thompson, the city comptroller. Once Bloomberg managed to cajole the city council to temporarily lift the two-terms-and-you're-out limits, the race was effectively over. The city's voting registration is five-to-one Democratic — and yet a Democratic nominee hasn't won the mayoralty here in 20 years.
Same sex marriage in Maine — Voters will decide whether to keep a law passed by the state Legislature supporting marriage between same-sex partners. Same-sex marriage has never survived a voter initiative in any state, the latest casualty coming in California.