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Cuccinelli vs. McAuliffe is the highlight race of Election Night 2013.

There was a time, well before the 2012 cycle had wrapped up, when it seemed probable that 2013's off-year elections would be a high-intensity affair at the top of the ticket, and a low-energy affair further down the ballot.

After all, the Democratic majorities in the New Jersey state legislature, and the Republican majority in the Virginia House of Delegates were pretty strongly established, and the districts seem to have been engineered to keep it that way. The only intrigue in either state's legislature was the deadlocked Virginia state Senate, and that wasn't going to be up for election until 2015.

Meanwhile, Virginia's tradition of mandating one-term governors seemed to portend a competitive open-seat affair in one of the true bellwether states in the Union over the past decade. Further north, an often prickly and controversial Republican governor, who only earned election with 49 percent of the vote over a deeply unpopular incumbent, was facing re-election in a blue state.

But, then, Sandy happened, and Ken Cuccinelli happened. And, as a result of both, it could easily be argued, the early CW about the 2013 off-year elections has been turned on its head. Barring an unusually strong late catalyst for enormous political change, the gubernatorial elections seem pretty well locked in. But the nature of those elections could be creating some intrigue downballot.

Head beyond the jump for an in-depth look at what to watch for in just nine days in the Garden State and the Old Dominion.

NEW JERSEY GOVERNOR:

Given that New Jersey is a state that swept both Barack Obama and Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez to victory by nearly 20 points, and given that Democrat Cory Booker just won a special U.S. Senate election by double digits despite a manipulated special election date designed to tank Democratic turnout, the gubernatorial race in New Jersey has to be a bit of a blow for Democrats.

I, for one, am a little surprised that this race, between incumbent Republican Gov. Chris Christie and Democratic state senator Barbara Buono, never tightened to the point that Democrats could even harbor slight hope for an upset. Every political science student has heard of the "Rally Effect", but every political science student also knows that one of the key words in its definition is the word "temporary." But Christie's post-Sandy honeymoon has been sustained, and has not abated in strength much, if at all.

And while Democrat Barbara Buono raised a decent amount of money for her campaign, she is still waiting for the magic ingredients to wear down some of Christie's teflon. At the close, a clear gambit for Buono is warning voters that Christie harbors 2016 presidential ambitions, and may tack hard right in a second term in order to placate GOP presidential primary voters. She alleged, for example, that a recent veto of a gun ban was done at the behest of a gun rights group based in ... New Hampshire.

In a crafty (and likely cynical, given the timing) move, Christie might've helped to take an issue off the table this week by dropping a planned appeal of a lower court decision in New Jersey sanctioning gay marriage. This was one of the clear position issues where Christie and Buono contrast, and this half-measure by Christie might allow him to run off the clock on an issue where 61 percent of New Jersey voters favor marriage equality.

Compounding the woes for Buono is that a surprising number of fellow Democratic elected officials have actually crossed party lines and endorsed Christie. Among the more prominent to do so was state senator Brian Stack, who endorsed Christie last Spring. Earlier this month, Christie picked up what he claimed was the 50th endorsement he has received from a Democratic elected official.

With less than two weeks to go, the unfortunate question for Democrats appears to be twofold: (a) can Buono utilize the natural lean of the state to keep the margin down versus Christie, and (b) can the Democrats avoid any coattail effect in order to preserve their majorities in the New Jersey state Assembly and state Senate?

NEW JERSEY STATE LEGISLATURE:

Without question, the specter of a one-sided gubernatorial election has most Democratic observers convinced that the blue team will have to play defense in order to preserve their modest majorities in the New Jersey state lege.

The Democrats hold a 48-32 lead in the state Assembly, and a 24-16 lead in the state Senate. For a little while, it really began to appear as if the GOP had a puncher's chance of reclaiming the state Senate, a scenario which now seems markedly less likely as we head into Election Day.

For those unfamiliar with Garden State politics, New Jersey (like many states) has legislative districts where both chambers are "nested" within the same geographic space. There are 40 legislative districts in the state, with one state Senator seated in each district, and the top two vote getters per election destined for seats in the state Assembly.

Recent polling has shown that one of the biggest target districts, on both sides, is showing signs of being surprisingly fertile territory for the Democrats. In the South Jersey-based 2nd LD, there is a somewhat unique circumstance in that the GOP holds both Assembly seats, but a Democrat is state Senator.

In a recent Stockton College poll, Democratic state Sen. Jim Whelan has a surprisingly large 55-34 lead over Republican Frank Balles, the sheriff of Atlantic County. To be sure, Balles might be the victim of a self-imposed political wound, having pointed and laughed his way to a monstrous gaffe earlier in the month. That said, it could be more than Balles tanking: a poll of the Assembly race in the district shows the GOP in danger of losing at least one of their Assembly seats to Democrat Vince Mazzeo.

On paper, the neighboring 1st LD might be more fertile ground for the GOP. Democrats hold all three legislative seats in the district, but the district only went 53-46 for Obama last year. However, mid-October polling in the district, also by Stockton, showed little cause for concern for the Democrats. Incumbent state Senator Jeff Van Drew (often talked up as a future Congressional candidate) held a 58-29 lead over Republican Susan Adelizzi-Schmidt. And while the "top two" system of electing Assembly members makes for closer contests, the two Assembly Democrats combined to lead their two Republican challengers by a pretty healthy margin (47-35).

So, based on those two South Jersey districts (where, by the by, both polls showed Chris Christie wrecking shop in the gubernatorial race), Democrats have to be at least a little bit heartened by the data. These are two districts, for what it's worth, that their Senate incumbents won in 2011 with margins only in the single digits.

Those are not the only battlegrounds in the state, however.

Republicans also have designs on Senate and Assembly seats in four other districts. Their foray into the 3rd LD is perhaps most interesting, because it is the home of state Senate president Stephen Sweeney. On paper, it is not terribly fertile ground for Republicans (the LD went 60-39 Obama last year), and there has been some dispute internally in the GOP over how hard to fight there, with some convinced that Sweeney could be quite vulnerable despite the terrain in the district. The 14th and 38th LD's, meanwhile, are swing territory that has gone back-and-forth between the two parties over the years. The 38th is a little less Democratic (though still 55-44 Obama in 2012) than the 14th district, but given Obama's outsized win here last year (which defied late polls, and might've been fueled by a Sandy rally effect, to boot), Republicans no doubt think that this is their most fertile turf for a comeback. The most curious target, and a depository as it happens for substantial cash from the Koch Brothers, is the Middlesex County-based 18th LD. Not only is it a district that trends substantially blue (61-38 Obama in 2012), but it is the home district for Barbara Buono, who is at the top of the ballot for the Democrats.

Democrats are not entirely playing defense, however. They have a bit of an opportunity in the state's other district that splits its legislative delegation. In the state's 7th LD, Republican Diane Allen has survived in Democratic turf (64-35 Obama last year), in a district where both Assembly members are Democrats. Businessman Gary Catrambone is trying to topple the longtime legislative veteran, who is among the most formidable fundraisers on the GOP side of the ledger. Democrats could also theoretically be competitive in the 8th LD (53-46 Obama) and the 11th LD (55-44 Obama), but those two districts appear to be enormous longshots for the Democrats despite the amenable terrain.

VIRGINIA GOVERNOR:

There may be no more appropriate case study for political self-sabotage than what the Virginia Republican Party has done this cycle. Eighteen months ago, the Virginia GOP had a governor talked up in presidential/vice-presidential circles, hold of every statewide constitutional office, and a ginormous (albeit heavily gerrymandered) majority in the state House of Delegates. There was little in the cards to suggest that 2013 was going to do much to dent what seemed to be Republican hegemony in-state over a state that has been growing increasingly competitive at the presidential level.

Then Ken Cuccinelli happened.

Cuccinelli had been a multi-term state legislator in purple-to-blue territory in Northern Virginia before being elected in a landslide to the post of state Attorney General in 2009. He managed to sidestep a potential showdown for the gubernatorial nod with state Lt. Governor Bill Bolling by ensuring that the GOP nominee would be chosen by convention, which would seem to effectively cede the nomination to Cuccinelli, who was much more beloved by the socially conservative base voters in the GOP. This led Bolling to briefly flirt with, and then eventually decide against, an Independent bid for Governor.

In many ways, though, the damage had been done. Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who had no such internecine battles to wage in order to win the nomination of his party, was able to shrewdly exploit the wedge in the GOP to paint Cuccinelli as someone who wasn't even in the mainstream of his own party, let alone the Virginia electorate. Cuccinelli, for his part, did nothing to dispel the notion that he actually WAS out of the mainstream (a grand example can be found here). The net result is that, even as McAuliffe has hardly been a universally beloved candidate (his poll numbers reflect roughly even levels of favorable and unfavorable sentiment), Cuccinelli has proven so toxic that he's been unable to make this race truly competitive.

Indeed, as the race progressed into the autumn months, the polls in this race remained remarkably stable, with virtually every poll conducted over the past five weeks staking Terry McAuliffe to a lead over Ken Cuccinelli of anywhere between 5-9 points.

Indeed, the one poll that deviated from the norm this week couldn't even cobble together a lead for the GOP standard bearer. The Wenzel poll (and their track record in 2012 was right-leaning and awful) had McAuliffe ahead of Cuccinelli, albeit by a single point.

The government shutdown, in a state that a critical mass of government workers call home, surely did not help. But McAuliffe's ascendancy preceded that, and Cuccinelli is going to need a hell of a lot more than fading anger over the GOP-induced shutdown to claw his way back to parity.

VIRGINIA DOWNBALLOT RACES: LT. GOVERNOR AND ATTORNEY GENERAL:

Virginia elects three statewide officers. In addition to Governor, the offices of Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General are also decided at the ballot box. These downballot offices are critical for several reasons. Lt. Governor is especially important now, since a 20-20 split in the state Senate will hold until the Senate is up for election again in 2015. What's more: these statewide officers are all too often the partisan bench necessary for the next round of gubernatorial elections. Remember: Virginia is a state with a one-term limit for governors.

Democrats are fairly confident that their victory in the Lt. Governor's race has been baked in every since the Republican Party defied expectations, and any semblance of logic, and gave their nomination to E.W. Jackson. Jackson, for those who don't remember, is this guy. As in "the Great Society was worse for African-Americans than slavery, because blah-blah-blah", and other greatest hits. When the race was between two unknowns, the results were shockingly close. But as Democratic state senator Ralph Northam has taken to the air to define himself, and to define Jackson, the race's numbers have diverged. A handful of recent polls have had Northam up by double digits, and climbing.

Meanwhile, Republicans, ever fearful of a complete shutout statewide, have started to build their firewall around AG candidate Mark Obenshain. One group, the Republican Statewide Legislative Committee (RSLC) has dropped a seven-figure sum into Virginia to save Obenshain, who polls show is in the midst of a coin flip election with fellow state legislator Mark Herring, the Democratic nominee. Obenshain is hardly a moderate (evidence of that can be found here), but when you stand next to Cuccinelli and Jackson, it is hard not to look reasonable by comparison. This race has shaped up more like a generic D-versus-R affair, which explains why it is still a toss up.

VIRGINIA STATE HOUSE OF DELEGATES:

In many ways, the series of elections in the Virginia House of Delegates are a bizarre converse of the legislative races in New Jersey. In New Jersey, the popularity of the GOP statewide ticket has Republicans eyeing gains in the legislature. In Virginia, the unpopularity of the GOP statewide ticket has Republicans looking very warily at the state of play next month.

Having said that, let's stipulate one thing: the Democrats will most assuredly not seize a majority in the state House of Delegates next month. Not only does the GOP have a better than two-to-one majority in the 100-seat chamber, but they started the 2013 general election with a guaranteed pickup of one seat. In the downstate 4th district, veteran Democratic Del. Joe Johnson retired, and no Democrats filed for the very red seat (68% Romney in 2012). Therefore, Republican Ben Chafin takes the seat in a walk. That means that the Democrats would have to pick up nearly 20 seats to reclaim the chamber. That ain't gonna happen.

That said, a while ago it looked like the Republican super-majority was going to be preserved in the 2013 elections. That no longer seems to be the case, as the combination of the GOP-inspired shutdown in D.C. and the Cuccinelli swoon has contributed to a sudden improvement of the prospects for Democrats to make significant progress in their quest to move towards parity in the House. This statement alone, from a recent column by Jeff Schapiro of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, ought to give Democrats a tremendous boost of optimism:

It’s a pattern playing out across Northern Virginia; Hampton Roads, a defense-rich region also rattled when Washington went dark for 16 days; and, possibly, pockets of the western countryside. It’s energizing Democrats and alarming Republicans. It could augur what neither party had anticipated in early October: That badly outnumbered House Democrats could make significant gains, because of their party’s stronger-than-expected statewide ticket and backlash to the shutdown.

Recent internal polling by both parties suggests as much. Operatives in both parties disagree on how many House seats actually may be in play: Democrats believe there could be 10. Republicans put the number at six, maybe, eight, if conditions continue to erode.

Clearly, Republicans are most concerned about their seats in NoVa, where the rapidly changing demographics had ushered in a sea change in political terrain even before the government shutdown wounded the Republican brand name in the communities where many, many federal workers are housed.

One bellwether district may well be HD-34, where Republican incumbent Del. Barbara Comstock has parlayed formidable fundraising skills  into a pair of close wins over Democratic challengers in a district that Barack Obama carried by less than a point. However, a recent Democratic internal poll showed Democrat Kathleen Murphy leading Comstock by a 48-45 margin.

Two other races in NoVa have seen recent polls that show Democratic pickups are possible. In HD-87, Republican Del. David Ramadan (who barely won election in 2011) is deadlocked with Democrat John Bell at 47 percent each. In HD-86, usually entrenched Republican veteran Del. Tom Rust only leads Democrat Jennifer Boysko 48-45.

The shutdown, so critical in the ring of communities just outside of the District, could also be creating a competitive race in Prince William County. In HD-51, well-funded Democratic challenger Reed Heddleston is giving sophomore Del. Rich Anderson all he can handle. Anderson didn't even face a Democratic opponent in 2011.

Just to the southeast of the Anderson/Heddleston contest, in the exurban HD-02, freshman Republican Del. Mark Dudenhefer is being challenged by Democrat Michael Futrell in a district he only won 56-44 in a very Republican year in 2011. Barack Obama won 59 percent in the district. Further to the west in the D.C. exurbs (HD-13), longtime Del. Bob Marshall is a far-right ideologue that has somehow, and miraculously, held his seat for 7 terms in a district that is now a 55-44 Obama district. Democrat Atif Qarni is trying to stop his winning streak.

And, in one of the more extraordinary examples of a seat that could be in play, the red-tinted seat in HD-33, located west of the D.C. metro area, has become competitive through a combination of a better-than-average Democratic candidate (Mary Daniel) and a teabagging in the primary that replaced incumbent Joe May with insurgent conservative candidate Dave LaRock. LaRock has been ducking public appearances, trying to use the district's Republican lean (56-42 Romney in 2012) and make his way across the finish line. This race has taken on a definite "sleeper race" tone in the final few weeks.

Further downstate, other districts appear competitive as well. One of the closest races in 2011 was Joseph Yost's 52-48 win in HD-12, a 51 percent Obama district that includes Blacksburg. Democrat James Harder is trying to deny Yost a second term.

In Newport News (HD-93), Republican Del. Mike Watson was elected to his first term in 2011 by just a 52-48 margin. Now, he faces Democrat Monty Mason in one of the most expensive races in the state in a 56-42 Obama district. In the neighboring HD-94 (a slightly more GOP district at 52 percent Obama), freshman Republican Del. David Yancey is facing a tougher than expected challenge from local firefighter Robert Farinholt. There are also a pair of open seats in Virginia Beach (HD-84 and HD-85) which had slight leans to Mitt Romney in 2012, but could be in the mix if the wave is high enough.

Equally dispiriting for the GOP: aside from their guaranteed pickup along the Virginia/North Carolina border, there is not a single Democratic-held seat that seems likely to be closely contested come November. Opinions vary rather wildly on how many seats the Democrats will pick up, but it would be a huge victory for the GOP if they managed a wash on the evening.

Originally posted to Daily Kos Elections on Sun Oct 27, 2013 at 08:59 AM PDT.

Also republished by Virginia Kos and Daily Kos.

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