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Two high-profile governors races ensure 2013 won't be quiet year

By Paul Steinhauser, CNN Political Editor
November 15, 2012 -- Updated 1444 GMT (2244 HKT)
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has not yet announced if he will run for re-election.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has not yet announced if he will run for re-election.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Two gubernatorial contests in New Jersey and Virginia will receive a lot of attention
  • In 2008, the governors races foretold the 2010 Republican midterm sweep
  • Polls show New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie with a 56% approval rating
  • U.S. Sen. Mark Warner may run for his old job as governor of Virginia

(CNN) -- Take a larger than life governor who may have designs on the White House and a battleground state crucial in presidential politics, and guess what: 2013 might not be as quiet a political year as you thought.

New Jersey and Virginia are the only two states to hold gubernatorial contests in the year after a presidential election, and in both states, the campaign clocks are already ticking.

"Virginia and New Jersey are going to get a lot of attention because they are the only games in town in 2013," said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report.

"The eyes of the world are on these two races," agrees Colm O'Comartun, executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, who adds that "next year in Virginia and New Jersey we're going to play a significant part."

And the two races will be a hot topic as the Republican Governors Association begins two days of meetings on Wednesday in Las Vegas.

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In the wake of big Democratic victories in the 2008 election, the GOP swept both races in the Old Dominion and the Garden State from Democrats.

"In 2009, the victories in Virginia and New Jersey kick-started the GOP comeback in the 2010 midterm elections," said RGA Communications Director Mike Schrimpf, who suggested that Republican victories in 2013 could have a similar impact on the 2014 midterms.

He added that "it's a great opportunity for the Republican Party to get its focus back on results oriented leadership."

While both races will get tons of attention, New Jersey may steal more of the spotlight thanks to its tough-talking Republican governor, Chris Christie, who may also, down the road, be a contender for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination.

Christie says his decision on running for re-election has been slowed by Hurricane Sandy's devastation to parts of his state. The governor has spent the past two weeks dealing almost exclusively with the powerful storm and its aftermath. At a news conference earlier this week, he offered no timetable for a decision, but did say he'll soon give the 2013 race some serious consideration.

Christie: Romney 'didn't get enough votes'

While Christie has yet to make any announcement, some GOP strategists are convinced the first-term governor, who's very popular among Republicans and who served as a key surrogate for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign and was seriously considered as Romney's running mate, will run for re-election.

"The governor's race in New Jersey is ultimately going to be decided on the strength of Governor Christie's record," Schrimpf said. "He's shown a tremendous ability to get big things done in a bipartisan fashion, including education reform, pension reform, and most recently with his leadership after Sandy. What voters want in their governor is a leader who can get things done, and there's no doubt that Governor Christie has gotten a lot done in his first term as governor."

Democrats see it a different way, and highlight the state's 9.8% unemployment rate.

"On the economic front I think he's failed to deliver again and again and again. He's got a huge raft of negatives against him that is sometimes hidden by the rhetoric and theater and side show that is Governor Christie," said O'Comartun, who added that "New Jersey is a state that's brought down big characters before."

The big question in New Jersey is which Democrat will take on Christie. Much speculation centers on Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a rising star in the Democratic Party. Others considering bids are state Sen. Richard Codey, who served as governor for 14 months following the November 2004 resignation of then-Gov. Jim McGreevey, State Sen. Barbara Buono and Assembly member Lou Greenwald.

A Quinnipiac University poll conducted last month indicated that 56% of New Jersey registered voters approved of how Christie was handling his duties, and by a 52%-40% margin thought he deserved re-election next year.

In hypothetical matchups, Christie had a 46%-42% edge over Booker and a 47%-41% advantage over Codey, with double-digit leads over Buono and Greenwald.

GOP expands majority in governors' mansions, CNN projects

In Virginia, where governors cannot run for consecutive terms, the question right now is whether Mark Warner wants his old job back. A new poll suggests if he does, it may be his for the taking.

A Quinnipiac University survey released Wednesday indicated the first term U.S. senator would be the favorite candidate as the 2013 Virginia gubernatorial campaign gets under way.

Warner, who was elected Virginia governor in 2001 and to the Senate in 2008, has said he'll announce by Thanksgiving if he'll stay in the Senate or make a bid for governor.

According to the poll, Warner holds large leads over the two leading Republican candidates in hypothetical showdowns. Among registered Virginia voters, Warner leads Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, 53%-33%, and tops Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, 52%-34%.

"If Senator Mark Warner decides to run, he begins the campaign as the prohibitive favorite," says Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "He is much better known and much better liked than either of the Republican aspirants and his job approval rating - 60% - is the highest of any statewide elected official."

McDonnell: GOP must be more inclusive

But the general consensus among some Democratic strategists is that Warner will keep his current job.

Terry McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chairman and former top adviser to Bill and Hillary Clinton, announced last Thursday that he'll make a second run for Virginia governor. McAuliffe came in second to state Sen. Creigh Deeds in a three-candidate battle for the 2009 Democratic nomination. Deeds ended up losing by a landslide in the general election to then-Republican Attorney General Bob McDonnell.

If Warner stays in the Senate and McAuliffe is the Democratic nominee for governor, the poll indicates the race is much closer, with McAuliffe at 38% and Bolling at 36%, and McAuliffe at 41% and Cuccinelli at 37%.

The battle for the GOP nomination could get very interesting, with Cuccinelli, a conservative tea party favorite, squaring off against Bolling, who is more moderate than his rival.

Bolling, the two-term lieutenant governor, has McDonnell's endorsement. But the nomination will be decided next year at a state party convention, often dominated by more conservative activists, which favors Cuccinelli, rather than a primary, which could favor Bolling.

While preparing for either outcome, the DGA relishes facing off against Cuccinelli, with O'Comartun saying he's "the wrong man at the wrong time."

Virginia has become a battleground state in the past two presidential cycles, with President Barack Obama carrying the state for a second straight election last week. And the Democrats held control of the state's open U.S. Senate seat in last week's elections.

But the RGA sees some positives going into next year's contest.

"I think the encouraging thing about Virginia is the Republican brand at the state level and particularly the gubernatorial level is extremely strong thanks to the leadership of Governor McDonnell and no matter who our nominee is, they're going to have a proven ability of getting elected statewide," Schrimpf said.

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