The Fix’s top five races of 2013

May 31, 2013

What's good for today could be bad for tomorrow. Case in point: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R).

President Obama returned to the Garden State this week, sparking a fresh round of chatter about the political risk Christie assumes by welcoming Obama to New Jersey.

(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Of course, that risk has everything to do with 2016 and nothing to do with 2013. The only "risk" Christie is taking this year by touring the Hurricane Sandy recovery process with Obama is that he might grow even more popular in the eyes of his home state's voters.

Christie is in the driver's seat in his bid for reelection. But it wasn't always clear that he'd end up in this position. He's running in a deep blue state, after all, where winning statewide is never an easy lift for anyone with an "R" in front of their their name.

But Christie enjoyed a huge boost in popularity following his response to Hurricane Sandy last fall. As he dealt with the storm's aftermath, he cultivated a partisanship-be-darned, problem-solver image that voters embraced warmly. Obama's visit on the eve of the election to tour storm damage with Christie helped the governor solidify the bipartisan narrative he has been trying to feed in advance of this fall's election. Look no further than Christie's first TV ad, which concludes with imagery of his Sandy response.

We live in a very visual culture, and as we've noted in this space, pictures and videos play a very influential role in the way voters form their opinions about politicians. That's why Christie opted to include footage of his storm recovery efforts in an ad. Images matter.

And for that same reason, this week could come back to bite Christie if he runs for president in 2016.

Obama was in New Jersey to review the Sandy recovery process. But the visit is noteworthy for more than that. While he was up there, things got pretty chummy between the Democratic president and the Republican governor. They played a boardwalk football game and even high-fived each other at one point.

Right now, that may not seem like such a big deal. But again, images are powerful. And it's not difficult to see how a Christie primary opponent might use that footage in an opposition ad, in, say, the lead up to the 2016 Iowa caucuses, in which conservative activists play a major role.

Such is politics, where what's helpful in one race could be exactly what you don't need in another.

"If I'm a guy who's worried about 2016 and what you may or may not do, I might think if [Obama] wants to see recovery, tweet him some photos," Matt Lauer of NBC's "Today" told Christie in a recent interview.

Maybe. But November 2013 comes well before 2016. And if Christie turned his back on the chance to appear with Obama, odds are he wouldn't be in the position back home that he is right now.

And now, to the Line! Below we rank the top five races of 2013. The marquee matchup with the most at stake is number one:

5. New Jersey governor (Republican-controlled): The Garden State race moves onto the line following the end of the Los Angeles mayor's race and South Carolina's 1st district special election. To be clear, Christie is in complete control here, and the race hasn't grown any more competitive since the last time we looked at it. (If anything, Obama's visit this week boosted the Republican's advantage.) But the intrigue factor is high, and the negative campaign is in full swing on both sides. Christie isn't sitting on his hands despite his immense popularity and massive lead reflected in polling data. He's already put up several negative ads about Democrat Barbara Buono. The Democrat's first ad, meanwhile, took a dig at Christie's economic record. If you're looking for a friendly race to watch this year, this isn't it. (Previous ranking: N/A)

4. Boston mayor (Democratic-controlled): Then there were 15. The field of candidates here has narrowed a bit from the two dozen who first took out nominating papers. But there’s still a crowd aiming for a mayoral seat that hasn’t been open in three decades. We won't know how many of the remaining candidates gathered enough signatures for a bid until the end of June,  but so far, city councilors Felix Arroyo, John Connolly, and Rob Consalvo; community organizer John Barros; Suffolk District Attorney Daniel Conley and  state Rep. Martin Walsh have already made the cut. (Previous ranking: 5)

3. Massachusetts Senate (D): Here’s a thought (broached recently by Fix colleague Paul Kane): If Rep. Ed Markey (D) holds on but wins by only low- or mid-single digits, does he invite a challenge from former senator Scott Brown (R-Mass.) in 2014? Such a result would certainly suggest that Markey could be vulnerable to the still-popular former senator. So keep that in mind as we move forward; for Markey, it’s not just about winning, but by how much. (Previous ranking: 4)

2. New York City mayor (Independent-controlled): Anthony Weiner is in the race and creating as big a media circus as you would expect. And he's thriving on all the attention, showing himself to be not the humble, apologetic man he has claimed to be but be the brash, sarcastic politician he always was. So far, it seems to be working for him -- he dominated a recent education debate, and a new Marist poll found him gaining on frontrunner Christine Quinn. But his negatives are still all but insurmountable. He should enjoy it while it lasts. (Previous ranking: 2)

1. Virginia governor (R): The polls are all over the place in this one, with some showing Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) opening a significant lead – as much as double digits – and other polls showing former DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe leading. What we know is that this is the premier race of 2013, it’s in a very swingy state, and both sides are going to flood it with money, which means this should remain competitive barring an implosion by either candidate – which, for the record, isn’t out of the question. (Previous ranking: 1)

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Juliet Eilperin | May 31, 2013