Why you should care

Because if the Democrats are to emerge from the doldrums, it starts here.

From Seattle to Virginia Beach, voters are heading to the polls Tuesday in state and municipal elections that are largely flying under the radar compared to future congressional and presidential contests. But the results will tell us a lot about America’s political temperature one year after Donald Trump’s election. Here is what’s at stake in the two gubernatorial races, as well as a handful of important mayoral contests.

Virginia

With Republican Ed Gillespie’s blistering attacks against Democrat Ralph Northam, particularly on immigration and gang crime, there’s an echo in the Virginia governor’s race of the man sitting across the Potomac River in the White House. But one could just as easily hear similarities to the infamous Willie Horton ad deployed to help George H.W. Bush become president in 1988.

In either case, Tuesday’s marquee race offers a road map for Republicans that voters across the country can expect to see again. The late stages of the campaign — in which polls show Lt. Gov. Northam to be a slight favorite — have been dominated by Gillespie’s push on immigration, crime and Confederate statues; and a controversial ad aired by a pro-Northam group showing a Gillespie supporter chasing minority children in a truck. (The ad was meant to evoke the deadly Charlottesville white supremacist rally; it was yanked from the air after the truck terror attack in New York.) “Gillespie has tried to make this a late-’80s, early-’90s style Republican law and order race,” says Kyle Kondik, of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “I think he’s succeeded in that the race has become about the issues he wants the race to be about.”

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Supporters at a campaign event for Democratic gubernatorial candidate and Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam last month.

Source Alex Wong/Getty

To translate that into victory, the former head of the Republican National Committee must take the stronger-than-usual Republican showing in Northern Virginia in his 2014 near-miss campaign for U.S. Senate and add more Trump devotees in southwest Virginia coal country, Kondik says. Northam, a physician who talks often about health care, has run a largely uninspiring campaign but has the fundamentals in his favor: Hillary Clinton won Virginia by 5 percentage points, and liberals are energized nationwide to oppose Trump.

How to watch the returns: Keep an eye on Chesterfield County, outside Richmond, which usually reports early in the night. “If Gillespie is at around a 10-point lead … that should tell us that the race [statewide] will be pretty close,” Kondik says. A Chesterfield squeaker, by contrast, means Democrats can breathe easier.

New Jersey

When Democrat Phil Murphy fired up a crowd of supporters recently in a spacious living room in the wealthy town of Westfield, he was thinking bigger than his own race for governor of New Jersey. “We might have the cocktail to open the map up,” Murphy said, referring to how Dems have been galvanized by Trump and unpopular outgoing Republican governor Chris Christie.

Murphy, a first-time candidate and former Goldman Sachs banker and U.S. ambassador to Germany, is riding high against Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno — whom he ties relentlessly to Christie. Guadagno has painted her opponent as an out-of-touch tax raiser. A Monmouth University survey out Wednesday showed Murphy up by 14 points. “If Guadagno wins, it would be an existential crisis for pollsters — making other historical polling misses look like chump change,” says Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.

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Former President Bill Clinton speaks beside N.J. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy.

Source Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty

Murphy has pledged a left turn for the Garden State: legal marijuana, higher taxes on incomes over $1 million, making New Jersey a “sanctuary state” for immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children. He’s also working on taking nothing for granted. “I think we’re in a good place, I do,” Murphy said in Westfield, three weeks before Election Day. “I also thought the Brits would stay in Europe, and Hillary Clinton would win the election.”

How to watch the returns: Murray says legislative seats in Monmouth County, home to notable Jersey Shore hot spots, are worth watching. A wave election could give Democrats a state Senate pickup, but they could lose two assembly seats there if Guadagno closes the race to single digits.

Mayoral races

New York City’s Bill de Blasio and Boston’s Marty Walsh should cruise to re-election on Tuesday, but there are several mayoral races worth watching — particularly in major cities where long-standing Black political power has been challenged in recent years.

Detroit: Mike Duggan, the city’s first white mayor since the 1970s, has presided over a recovery from epic financial doldrums, while state senator Coleman Young II is pushing to “take back the motherland” in the majority-Black city.

Charlotte: Incumbent Jennifer Roberts, who became a national name by fighting North Carolina’s “bathroom bill,” lost a Democratic primary to Vi Lyles, an African-American city council member and mayor pro tem. Now Lyles is in a tight race with well-funded Republican council member Kenny Smith, who says Charlotte never should have passed the protections for transgender people that started the fight with the state.

Atlanta: Tuesday will give a window into whether this city will see its first white mayor in 44 years. Polls show a tightly bunched field, with council members Keisha Lance Bottoms, who is Black, and Mary Norwood, who is white, as the top contenders to advance to a December 5 runoff.

Seattle: Regardless of the outcome, the Emerald City is about to get its first female mayor in nearly 90 years. Former U.S. attorney Jenny Durkan has the money edge, while urban planner and activist Cary Moon is trying to harness left-wing energy. They’re clashing over the best way to tackle the city’s homelessness crisis.

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