You should be paying attention to this year's elections

    It's November, and that means election season is here. Yes, even though this isn't an even-numbered year, there's still major elections going on, and you should still pay attention to them. We'll give you all the information you need to say something coherent on someone else's Facebook status/at Thanksgiving/in your politicai science discussion section (choose all that apply).

    What makes off-year elections in lame states so important?

    These elections are useful for what they tell us about the state of the Republican Party (Democrats are boring this year, sorry), as well as for what they can tell us about next year's elections. Off-year elections have historically had low voter turnout. Kentucky had an off-year gubernatorial election in 2011, for example, and only 28 percent of eligible voters actually bothered showing up.

    So who does show up for off-year elections? Well, not young people and not minorities, especially in a year like this one, which is sort of an off-off-year election because normal House and Senate races aren't even happening. That means the major voters in these elections will be older white voters.

    Coincidentally, that's the same group of people that tends to vote in Republican primaries. Of course, not all the voters this week will be the same as we will see in Republican primaries in 2014, but demographically speaking this election has more in common with primaries than opinion polls of all voters do.

    All right, so what elections are even going on this year?

    Because this is an off year, most states aren't running major elections. Still, both New Jersey and Virginia are holding gubernatorial elections, and New York City has a mayoral election, so this year isn't as boring as it could be. There's also a number of states holding special elections for seats in the House of Representatives. Who's running in the major races? Well, in New Jersey, it's everyone's favorite straight-talking 2016 hopeful Gov. Chris Christie against Democratic State Senator Barbara Buono. Barring some hidden group of voters Buono has somehow hidden from all polling, it's a lock for Christie.

    In Virginia, unlikable Clinton-era political insider Terry McAuliffe is facing down a staggering -7 favorability rating. It's not all bad news for McAuliffe though, because he's still consistently outpolling Tea Party favorite and state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. Cuccinelli's hardline views on many issues have alienated voters and kept his party from fully backing him. Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis is polling at around 10 percent, a surprisingly high amount for a third party which contributes to McAuliffe's lead.

    Finally, in NYC we have Public Advocate and actual progressive Bill de Blasio campaigning against Republican Joe Lhota. You have to hand it to Lhota: He's still campaigning hard despite the fact that he's doomed to failure. This is an interesting election for numerous reasons, a major one of which is the popularity of de Blasio's platform, but we won't be talking about it here. Yes, New Yorkers, you'll have to read about other people for once.

    There's also a Republican House primary for a special election in Alabama. We'll get to that when it becomes relevant.

    And what can these elections tell us about the Republican Party?

    The core of the lessons revolves around the future viability of the Tea Party. After a strong outing in 2010 and some major defeats in 2012 the Tea Party's fate has remained uncertain. After the actions of Tea Party-affiliated Congressmen and women led to the government shutdown last month, tensions are on the rise within the party between establishment Republicans and the new blood.

    The Virginia and New Jersey races offer us some valuable insight into the potential futures of both groups. Ken Cuccinelli has lost control of his messaging, and the McAuliffe campaign and national media are taking advantage of this to paint him as a classic Tea Partier: playing hard to the base, doubling down on social issues and dragging down his own party. That Tea Party link has cost Cuccinelli dearly, and he is likely to lose.

    Chris Christie, meanwhile, is always and forever Chris Christie. Unlike Cuccinelli, he has the advantage of controlling his own messaging (having a national profile, a governorship and no filter makes that significantly easier). Christie is thought of as a classic establishment Republican, and his focus is on good governance and his ability to compromise.

    Obviously, there are other factors at play here for Cuccinelli and Christie, and trying to draw direct parallels would be dangerously misleading. Nevertheless, it is useful to note that Robert Sarvis, the Libertarian candidate, has maintained a steady 10 percent share in the polls with very similar policy stances to Christie. If Christie and Cuccinelli can be said to represent different ways to brand the Republican Party, one side seems to be more popular.

    Also, take special notice of what's going on in Alabama. Down there, establishment candidate Bradley Byrne is facing a tough primary fight from Tea Party-linked opponent Dean Young. The traditional pro-business GOP backers are pulling out all the stops in an effort to secure Byrne's victory. Byrne is raking in eight times more outside funding than Young is, along with outraising him more than two to one. And yet Young is still winning in the polls.

    Are we watching a fight for the heart and soul of the Republican Party again? I thought we already did that in 2012, 2010, 2008...

    Well, no. It's not that simple. New Jersey and Alabama are exceptional by virtue of being pretty blue and red, respectively, while Cuccinelli is so abysmally unpopular that he throws off the whole race in Virginia. Neither Christie nor Cuccinelli's victory or defeat will signify the oncoming defeat of the Republican Party. What we can learn from this is what an older, whiter electorate thinks of Tea Party candidates as opposed to establishment Republicans three years after the Tea Party came to prominence. And that electorate, while not a perfect match, is significantly closer to what primary voters look like than national polls are.

    It's not useful right now to try to figure out how the 2014 election will swing, but we can use these elections to take the temperature of likely primary voters. And whether those voters are still feeling Tea Party fever or prefer a cooler Republican brand might tell us a lot about the potential direction of the country in 2014.


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