Reading the Tea Leaves in the 2005 Elections Several elections Tuesday are worth watching for the insights they may offer about the public mood. Political Editor Ken Rudin offers a race-by-race synopsis.
NPR logo Reading the Tea Leaves in the 2005 Elections

Reading the Tea Leaves in the 2005 Elections

Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, is hoping that the popularity of term-limited Gov. Mark Warner -- and President Bush's unpopularity -- will help him win the Virginia governorship. hide caption

toggle caption

Jerry Kilgore resigned as Virginia's attorney general to run for governor. He is trying to use social issues -- such as the death penalty -- to draw a distinction with Kaine. hide caption

toggle caption

Corzine broke all spending records when he won his New Jersey Senate seat in 2000. He is trying to unite the Democratic party in his race for governor but had to bruise some feelings along the way to the nomination. hide caption

toggle caption

Republican Doug Forrester, like his opponent, is a multi-millionaire. He's trying to use high property taxes and corruption -- issues long familiar in New Jersey -- to propel himself into office. hide caption

toggle caption

Michael Bloomberg (right) is on track to make it four straight mayoral wins for the GOP in New York, which has never happened before. His Democratic opponent, Fernando Ferrer, insists Bloomberg has neglected the poor. hide caption

toggle caption

There are several different kinds of election cycles, each with a distinctive character. The big one, of course, is a presidential election year, in which the chief executive is elected, along with a third of the Senate and the entire House of Representatives.

A midterm election, such as those in 2002 or 2006, gets quite a bit of attention, too. Although there's no presidential contest then, often the battles in the House and Senate (and in many cases those for governor) are a reaction to or a referendum of the policies of the man in the White House. The midterm election year of 1994, in which Republicans took control of Congress, is widely seen as a reaction to the presidential election year of 1992, when Bill Clinton won his first term.

Then there is the kind of election cycle we are going through this year: far fewer contests nationally, much less at stake, and often much harder to make any kind of grand political pronouncements. Given the fact that all we are talking about are gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey, mayoral contests in a handful of major cities (led by New York and Detroit), and a bevy of ballot initiatives and referenda, it's hard to find any real "message" from the results. But sometimes this particular election cycle has something to say.

The best example came in 1989, a banner year for Democrats, abortion rights proponents, and African-American candidates. Douglas Wilder became the nation's first black governor since Reconstruction with his win in Virginia. New York City also elected its first black mayor, David Dinkins. And James Florio ran on the issue of abortion rights to win the governorship of New Jersey. Many people saw this as foreshadowing the victory of Bill Clinton as president in 1992.

Fast forward to 1993, another year in this cycle. A Republican, George Allen, won the Virginia governorship. New York City ousted Mayor Dinkins in favor of Republican Rudy Giuliani. New Jersey dumped Gov. Florio and replaced him with Republican Christine Todd Whitman. A trifecta for the GOP, and it was followed a year later by the Republican takeover of both the House and Senate.

So sometimes, the elections in this particular cycle can portend what's to come. Regardless of whether some "great meaning" emerges from Tuesday's results, there are nonetheless some elections worth watching for what they might reveal about the public mood. Here's a race-by-race synopsis:

VIRGINIA GOVERNOR

Lt. Governor Tim Kaine (D) vs. former Attorney General Jerry Kilgore (R)

If any race is going to be dissected to death this year, it's probably this one. It's a state that went twice for George W. Bush and in fact, it hasn't been won by a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964. But it's also a state that shows the president with strong unfavorable polling numbers. That's the case throughout much of the nation, given the growing unpopularity of the war in Iraq and high gasoline prices. But it's interesting to see it in the Old Dominion, long considered Bush country.

At the same time, term-limited Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat who is looking at a presidential run in 2008, has approval ratings in the 75-80 percent range. The president's unpopularity and Warner's popularity are two things Kaine is banking on. Aside from promising a continuation of the Warner years, he is pushing a detailed plan on increasing funding for pre-kindergarten kids.

Kilgore, who resigned as attorney general to concentrate on his campaign, calls Kaine an out-of-touch liberal who will raise taxes, and is making the death penalty a major bone of contention with his opponent. Kilgore supports the death penalty. Kaine, a Catholic, says he personally opposes executing prisoners but has vowed to follow state law if he is elected. A Republican state senator, Russell Potts, is on the ballot as an independent, and is expected to siphon off some votes from Kilgore. In the past seven Virginia gubernatorial elections -- going back to 1977 -- the winner has been of the OPPOSITE party of the president. Prediction: Kaine.

NEW JERSEY GOVERNOR

Sen. Jon Corzine (D) vs. businessman Doug Forrester (R)

Corzine is trying to accomplish what only four others have in nearly a half-century: leave the Senate to win election as governor. (The other four: Price Daniel (D-TX) in 1956, Pete Wilson (R-CA) in 1990, Dirk Kempthorne (R-ID) in 1998, and Frank Murkowski (R-AK) in 2002.)

It's been quite a ride for New Jersey since the last gubernatorial election, when Democrat James McGreevey won in 2001. McGreevey announced he was resigning in August of 2004 (effective last November) in the midst of a sex scandal and corruption investigation. N.J. is one of eight states without a lieutenant governor, and so McGreevey was succeeded as acting governor by the state senate president, Richard Codey (D). Then the plot thickened.

Corzine, the former Goldman Sachs exec who spent 70-some-odd million dollars of his own money to win his Senate seat in 2000, decided he wanted to be governor. In Washington, Corzine was one of 100, with no guarantees of being in the majority any time soon. On the other hand, the N.J. governorship is, for an assortment of reasons, the most powerful in the country. As far as Corzine was concerned, nothing was going to block his ascension to the Democratic nomination, least of all Codey. Along with Corzine's financial generosity (he pumped millions into the coffers of the county parties) came pledges from party chairs that he was their choice for governor -- a development that forced the well-liked Codey to the sidelines.

Forrester, like Corzine a multi-millionaire, is trying to use high property taxes and corruption -- issues long familiar in the state -- to propel himself into office. He was the Republican nominee for the Senate in 2002. If Corzine wins -- and he leads in every poll, usually around 6-8 points -- he will name his successor in the Senate. And that campaign has been going on all year as well. Prediction: Corzine.

NEW YORK CITY MAYOR

Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R) vs. former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer (D)

In a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans 5-1, Bloomberg is on track to make it four straight mayoral wins for the GOP, which has never happened before. And it looks like he's headed for a landslide. Of course, having gazillions of dollars, and the willingness to spend it on his campaign, doesn't hurt; Bloomberg is outspending Ferrer on the order of 17-1.

But the truth is, Bloomberg, first elected two months after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, has helped put the city back on track. Ferrer, who lost a bitter Democratic primary four years ago, insists that Bloomberg has done a poor job, that in fact there are "two New Yorks" -- one rich, one poor. He has tried to link the mayor to President Bush and the Republicans in Congress, neither of whom are especially popular in NYC. But the message doesn't seem to be resonating and, in fact, several leading Democratic politicians (including some key blacks) are on board the Bloomberg bandwagon. If Bloomberg -- who supports gay rights, opposes guns and is pro-choice -- doesn't exactly sound like a Republican, it's because he's a Republican in name only; he joined the GOP in 2001 for the express purpose of running for mayor, figuring he'd never win a Democratic primary. Prediction: Bloomberg.

DETROIT MAYOR

Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick vs. former Deputy Mayor Freman Hendrix

Hendrix, who served in city government under Kilpatrick's predecessor, Dennis Archer, is favored to oust Kilpatrick, who has been a controversial figure during his four years in office. He has been accused of using his office to personally benefit himself and his family, and many feel city services, never great to begin with, have gotten worse under his tenure. Detroit is about 80 percent black, and both candidates in this non-partisan runoff election are black. But Kilpatrick and his supporters have been suggesting that much of the vitriol against him is race-based. In the initial open primary in August, Hendrix led the mayor by 10 percentage points. Prediction: Hendrix.

SAN DIEGO MAYOR

Former Police Chief Jerry Sanders (R) vs. City Councilor Donna Frye (D)

One year ago, Frye, who ran a surf shop, came within inches of ousting Mayor Dick Murphy (R) with an improbable write-in campaign. Immediately, there were allegations about the fairness of the election and that, coupled with an FBI investigation into city finances, forced Murphy to resign in April. Two days later, his acting successor also resigned, having been convicted of taking bribes from a strip club owner. But with life in San Diego seemingly returning to normal, Sanders is favored to win; the city hasn't elected a Democratic mayor in 15 years. Frye says Sanders is part of the old guard that is at fault for the city's decline. Prediction: Sanders.

OTHER MAYORAL RACES OF NOTE

Atlanta: Mayor Shirley Franklin favored for a second term, but with multiple candidates in the race, it may not be decided until a Dec. 6 runoff.

Boston: Mayor Thomas Menino heavily favored in nonpartisan race with fellow Dem Maura Hennigan.

Cleveland: Jane Campbell, the city's first female mayor, is in a tough race against fellow Democrat Frank Jackson, the city council president, in a nonpartisan runoff. In the initial primary in October, Jackson led the mayor by 4,000 votes. Campbell has been hurt by the city's financial problems, which forced her to lay off policemen, firemen and teachers.

Houston: Mayor Bill White, a Democrat, heavily favored in nonpartisan race against multi-candidate field; runoff if needed is Dec. 10.

Minneapolis: Mayor R.T. Rybak favored over Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin in nonpartisan runoff between two Democrats.

St. Paul: Nonpartisan race in which both candidates are Dems. Mayor Randy Kelly is badly trailing Chris Coleman, a former city council member, partly because of Kelly's decision in 2004 to endorse President Bush for re-election. Not the most politically savvy move in a city that is overwhelmingly Democratic. John Kerry has come to St. Paul to campaign for Coleman. In the September open primary, Coleman led Kelly by nearly 2-1.

BALLOT INITIATIVES/REFERENDA OF NOTE

California: Prop. 73 requires parental notification before a minor can receive an abortion. Prop. 76 caps the growth of state spending. Prop. 77 creates a nonpartisan commission to draw district lines, taking the power away from the state legislature. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) strongly supports and has staked his dwindling prestige on passing 76 and 77, but both measures trail in the polls.

Maine: Question 1 would repeal a law passed this year that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

New Jersey: Creates the office of lieutenant governor.

Ohio: Creates a nonpartisan commission of judges to decide how to redistrict congressional seats. Republicans, who control nearly every major position in the state, are fighting hard to defeat this measure.

Texas: Prop. 2 defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

Washington: Measure 912 repeals the 9.5 cent per gallon gas tax that was enacted by the legislature earlier this year.