Tomorrow, some of the country will vote on various things and people. Immediately thereafter, pundits will begin reading too much into "what it all means," especially in relation to the 2014 and 2016 elections. I'm personally going to remain rather skeptical, though. Because I don't think there really are any true trends which can be read into these contests, which are all local and somewhat personality-driven. Especially this year.
Tomorrow's balloting is not just an "off-year" election, it is in fact an "off-off-year." That is to say, it's an odd year (in more ways that one, I suppose) and congressional elections only happen in even years. Next year will be Obama's second midterm congressional election, but we should all reflect that a whale of a lot can happen in one year in politics. Which brings me to the conclusion that whatever we're going to be talking about exactly one year from today is likely not being talked about at all, right now. That's politics -- things change quickly, and a year is a very long time.
What others will be saying as the returns come in tomorrow is as predictable as the big three races themselves. There will be victorious conclusions drawn by left and center. The hard right is going to have to stretch to declare any sort of victory, but they're probably up to this fantastical task, if history is any sort of guide. The big three races are for governor in Virginia and New Jersey, and the mayoral contest in New York City. Let's take a quick look at these races, and the conclusions which will almost inevitably be drawn by many.
Governor Chris Christie seems to be cruising towards re-election, even though pretty much everyone in New Jersey knows that he'll be a 2016 presidential candidate. Christie's popularity hasn't really fallen much throughout his re-election campaign, and voters appear to have forgiven him costing the state a lot of money just so his name wouldn't appear on a ballot with the Senate special election's Cory Booker. All is forgiven, or at least forgiven enough that New Jersey voters will comfortably hand Christie another term tomorrow.
Christie is, of course, larger than life. OK, that's a cheap shot, I know, but I do mean it in a more figurative sense as well. Christie has an enormous amount of the one thing that's really tough to fake in politics -- charisma. Love him or hate him, he is indeed a charismatic guy. This is already bringing fear to Democrats looking forward to the 2016 contest, as Christie (were he to win the Republican nomination) would certainly make for an interesting campaign.
Christie's politics are pretty conservative, even if everyone slaps the "centrist" label on him. But just being "pretty conservative" these days also has the secondary meaning of "not being a Tea Party lunatic" -- which is enough to earn him the "centrist" label from many. He actually worked with President Obama after Hurricane Sandy, which is enough to earn him the fear and loathing of the Tea Party. All this will play out in the 2016 primary season, of course, but for now Christie's victory is going to be the only bright spot for Republicans tomorrow. Establishment Republicans (especially those who write for the mainstream media) will be falling all over themselves to proclaim that Christie's "centrism" represents the only viable path for the Republican Party to follow if it wants to win future elections.
But Christie is his own phenomenon, really. His "straight talk" sort of persona plays very well in the seething cauldron of New Jersey politics, but it likely lacks two things when it comes to identifying any larger trends. The first is Christie himself. There simply are no other candidates "like Christie" in politics. His personality is unique, really. That's what charisma is all about, and just because Christie has it doesn't mean any other candidate could do the same thing elsewhere. The second reason Christie may not be all that trendworthy is that it remains to be seen how it will play outside the Garden State. The backlash from the Tea Party is muted in New Jersey, but it might be on full display in other states. The last moderate Republican governor who hugged Obama in public is now running to recapture his office -- as a Democrat. Charlie Crist was hounded out of the Republican Party for his moderate views in Florida. This isn't going to happen to Christie tomorrow, but it may be on display in Iowa when he starts his 2016 run.
It looks fairly certain that Democratic operative Terry McAuliffe is going to win the Virginia governor's race tomorrow, defeating Tea Party candidate Ken Cuccinelli. This result is going to be declared a trend away from the Tea Party in general, starting tomorrow evening. Some may even declare the Tea Party's influence to now be on the wane overall.
I'm reserving judgment, myself. This campaign was unique in several ways that likely won't be true in future races elsewhere. So while of course it is amusing to watch a Tea Party ticket crash and burn, I am wary of drawing larger conclusions from this race.
One unique aspect of the race is that even though they aren't technically tied together as an official "ticket," the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor was even more of a Tea Party fanatic than the gubernatorial candidate. Virginia Republicans doubled down on the crazy in this contest, folks. Cuccinelli tried to distance himself from the ravings of E. W. Jackson, but voters tended to lump them together. Unlike the races Tea Partiers have lost for Republicans for Senate, which involved only single instances of lunacy (see: Christine O'Donnell, Delaware), this race in Virginia involved a double dose of some very strong tea. But I can't see this happening, for instance, in the 2016 presidential contest. If Ted Cruz is nominated by the Republican Party and then selects Michele Bachmann as his running mate, then I could be proven wrong. But I think that's pretty far outside the range of possibility. Even if Cruz (or some other Tea Party candidate) wins the nomination, I think they'll be smart enough to choose a "centrist" like Christie to balance the ticket a bit. Especially after what's going to happen in Virginia tomorrow.
There are two other reasons why it's likely not valid to use Virginia as some sort of bellwether of an anti-Tea-Party trend. The first is that McAuliffe was a very weak candidate. He's one of those guys who has spent a lifetime in the background of national politics, and he decided a few years ago that he wanted a Virginia office as a reward for his years of service to the Democratic Party. But he lost an earlier run when he was bested in the Democratic primary, and he's generally been seen as a weak candidate this time around, too. Of course, this is going to reinforce the "Tea Party's on the decline" storyline, because "the Tea Partiers couldn't even defeat a flawed Democrat." But the situation may not translate well to other races outside of the Old Dominion.
One of the biggest reasons Virginia may not signal any sort of trend is that there is a (fairly) strong third-party candidate in the race as well. The Libertarian candidate has been polling as high as double digits, and could drain a lot of support that normally would have gone to the Republican. Look very carefully at the returns tomorrow night, and if the Libertarian votes plus the Republican votes equals more than the Democratic votes, then this "trend" may not be as obvious as everyone thinks.
And lastly, Virginia's electorate is in a rather unique spot. It is a state that (in presidential elections) has been solid red for decades but is now trending bluer and bluer. Obama won Virginia twice -- something no other Democrat has done for a very long time. Virginia now has two Democratic senators. Northern Virginia and its suburban population growth has tilted the state's otherwise rural demographic towards the Democrats, and this change may be a lasting one. Much of Virginia's economy depends on the federal government (naval shipyards and all the spillover suburban offices from various governmental departments) -- it was the hardest-hit state during the government shutdown, for instance. This leads even otherwise-conservative voters in the state to see things differently than their government-hating brethren elsewhere, to put it rather politely. But it's a demographic which only really exists in Maryland and Virginia. Meaning it'd be hard to draw conclusions about other parts of the country from a Virginia election.
The only sure "trend" tomorrow will be a record which will fall. Virginia has, for a long time, been the contrarian of national politics. The governor's race always happens a year after the presidential election, and Virginia has consistently elected as governor the candidate from the party who lost the White House in the previous year. That record will be broken tomorrow night.
New York City
The biggest race of the night for lefty pundits will not be Virginia, however, but rather New York City's mayoral contest. Bill de Blasio was the most progressive Democrat in a primary race that had a cartoonish quality about it (thanks to Anthony Weiner thinking he could win it), and his victory in nabbing the Democratic nomination is almost certainly going to propel him to victory tomorrow night.
De Blasio delights progressives because he is so unashamedly and unapologetically liberal. He talks about class differences like they matter, and he champions The Little Guy every chance he gets. This is going to lead many pundits to draw overlarge conclusions about de Blasio's victory, probably. "Look!" they'll say, "You can run on a progressive platform and win!" Well, yes, but this is the Big Apple we're talking about, folks, and not Peoria.
Don't get me wrong -- I will celebrate de Blasio's win and will be following his career as mayor. I think he could do some very good things for New York City. But I don't think that his victory will be the start of any larger trend among Democrats running elsewhere. It could bolster the campaigns of some who are already planning progressive runs, but the effect won't be that large, I think.
New York City is, to put it mildly, a unique urban environment. Other urban centers in the country might trend in the same direction, but that doesn't translate into a whole lot of House or Senate seats, to say nothing of presidential politics.
Of course, I've saved the biggest reason Bill de Blasio isn't going to set a trend for last. The city has become, from all reports, rather tired of Michael Bloomberg. During his three-term reign in the city, he has pushed policies that have become not just unpopular but in fact made the city somewhat of a laughingstock (see: ban on large soft drinks). New Yorkers are ready for something different than Bloombergian rule. So just as Barack Obama was, to a large extent in his 2008 race, "Mr. Not George W. Bush," Bill de Blasio is going to get a whole lot of votes tomorrow for being "Mr. Not Michael Bloomberg." This situation isn't exactly mirrored anywhere else in the country, at least not as far as I can see.
So there you have it. I didn't even bother trying to write a horserace article, one day before the election, because in all three contests the results are pretty foregone conclusions. Instead, I'm offering up a plea to columnists everywhere to resist the urge to proclaim trends and predict what will happen a year from now. These are three unique elections, with special circumstances in each. Even without these singular aspects, it's kind of a fool's game to predict any sort of larger trends from off-off-year elections. But that doesn't mean plenty of folks won't attempt to do just that, starting in about 24 hours.
-- Chris Weigant
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant