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Can’t Tell the Off-Year Election Day Players Without a Scorecard

In politics, off-years are supposed to be quiet. But 2005 is shaping up to be a surprisingly big year on the electoral front — and we’re not talking about the jockeying for the 2006 midterms or the 2008 presidential race.

Here’s a scorecard to the Nov. 8 elections. [IMGCAP(1)]

Virginia. The nation’s marquee race for 2005 pits Democratic Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine against Republican ex-Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, with state Sen. Russ Potts mounting a bid as an Independent.

As most political junkies know by now, Kaine and Kilgore are locked in an extraordinarily close race, with Potts, a maverick Republican, stuck in the low single digits. As a Democrat, Kaine would seem to be at a disadvantage in this red state, but he has benefited from the astronomical popularity of outgoing Gov. Mark Warner (D), and from the sagging of support among Virginians for President Bush (Kilgore was noticeably absent when Bush visited the state last week). Experts rate this one as too close to call.

In the lieutenant governor’s race, Republican state Sen. Bill Bolling and former Rep. Leslie Byrne (D) are facing off in a bitter showdown between a staunch conservative and a staunch liberal. And in an attorney general’s race dominated by the issue of cracking down on sex offenders, moderate-to-conservative Democratic state Sen. Creigh Deeds, who has the backing of the National Rifle Association, is squaring off against conservative Republican state Del. Bob McDonnell.

Both races have grown heated, with recent polling suggesting that the two down-ticket Republicans have the edge. But the margins are modest, with sizable numbers of voters still undecided and much weighing on the level of turnout.

The Virginia House of Delegates is, along with the New Jersey General Assembly, one of only two legislative chambers up this year. Virginia’s chamber has a 61-37 Republican majority, and while some speculate that the Democrats could gain seats for the second election in a row, the GOP will almost certainly retain control.

New Jersey. The race between two millionaires — Democratic Sen. Jon Corzine, and businessman and 2002 GOP Senate nominee Doug Forrester — was supposed to result in a relatively easy victory for Corzine in this solidly Democratic state. But last year’s resignation under fire of Gov. Jim McGreevey (D) and questions about some of

Corzine’s financial ties helped narrow the race in September to just a couple of points.

Since then, Bush’s troubles, as well as a host of other issues raised by an ultra-expensive TV ad war, have helped widen the gap again. Corzine is now considered the favorite, though not an overwhelming one.

The New Jersey Assembly is up this year, but the 47-33 Democratic edge is not thought to be in danger.

New Jerseyans will also vote on whether to institute an office of lieutenant governor for the first time. Currently, the state Senate president becomes acting governor when the governor steps down — something that’s happened to the state’s two most recent elected governors. Both gubernatorial candidates have endorsed the measure, and while no survey data is available, analysts expect it to pass.

Ballot Measures. Voters will be asked to decide more than 40 ballot measures this fall — a vastly higher number than normal for an off-year election. Some of these measures have been sent to the voters by popular petition, while some were placed on the ballot by elected officials. Either way, this year’s crop of measures are poised to address some noteworthy issues.

The highest-profile measures are a handful of initiatives promoted by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R). Indeed, the governor made a point of calling a special off-year election to give voters a chance to weigh a series of self-styled reform measures. They include the establishment of an independent redistricting process, new restrictions on teacher tenure, curbs on political uses of union dues, and a state spending cap.

Most polls show Schwarzenegger’s measures lagging, much as his own popularity has sagged in recent months. The propositions have also been hit by a barrage of criticism by Democrats and unions that feel threatened by them.

A Field Poll in late October found the redistricting measure trailing 35 percent to 51 percent; teacher tenure behind 44 percent to 50 percent; union dues behind 40 percent to 50 percent; and spending limits down 32 percent to 60 percent. When asked if Schwarzenegger’s support made them more likely to support a proposition, 24 percent said it did, while 43 percent said it would make them less likely to support it. And in an October Public Policy Institute of California poll, 54 percent of likely voters said they disliked the very decision to call a special election in the first place.

Another bloc of reform measures will be on the ballot in Ohio, including enactment of an independent redistricting system, easier absentee balloting, stricter campaign finance limits and removal of election-oversight authority from the secretary of state. Supporters hope that the widening scandals surrounding Gov. Bob Taft (R) and the state’s dominant Republican Party will make a difference.

But while the absentee-ballot and campaign finance measures appear to be in good shape, support for the redistricting and election-oversight measures are mired in the low 40s, according to a University of Akron poll, most likely due to the complexity of the subject and an aggressive counterattack by Republicans, who stand to lose their strong majorities in the state Legislature and the Congressional delegation if redistricting is done independently.

If a couple of these initiatives go down, it ought to give pause to Ohio Democrats, who have been giddy for months now about major post-scandal gains in 2006. (Interestingly, an unrelated measure closely identified with Taft that would allow the sale of bonds to fund research and construction projects won nearly 62 percent support in the University of Akron poll, despite the governor’s ongoing problems.)

Taxes and spending will be another big issue in 2005. Due to an election quirk, Coloradans voted Tuesday, rather than next week, on a pair of high-profile measures that would loosen the state’s tight Taxpayer Bill of Rights law and authorize the spending of surplus revenues. The results were not known at Roll Call’s press time.

In Washington state, anti-taxers seem to have the edge in a bid to overturn a transportation package funded by a gasoline tax. The tax plan was strongly backed by the business community and passed with support of both parties in the legislature.

Several hot-button social issues will be on the ballot Tuesday. Texans will decide whether to add their state to the long list of those that have defined marriage as being between a man and a woman.

In Maine, voters will be asked whether a law passed by the Legislature that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation should be kept or repealed. The most recent survey data shows Down Easters preferring to keep the law as is, but historically, pre-election surveys about gay-related ballot measures in Maine have understated the strength of anti-gay voting on Election Day.

And in California, voters will weigh a measure, endorsed by Schwarzenegger but not part of his reform package, that requires parental notification for minors seeking an abortion, except in cases of medical emergency or with a judicial waiver. Support for this initiative has been close to even in polls throughout the summer and fall.

In the meantime, voters in both California and Washington state will face dueling health care measures. Californians will choose between two visions of prescription-drug pricing policies, one backed by activists and another by the pharmaceutical industry, while Washington residents, in a battle that has broken records for initiative spending in the state, will choose whether to back doctors or trial lawyers on the issues surrounding medical malpractice lawsuits. Paradoxically, an August poll had both Washington state measures comfortably ahead.

Washington state voters will also choose whether to outlaw smoking in indoor public places. The measure was leading in summer polling.

Mayoral Races. New York’s mayoral race is the biggest, but it’s also not much in doubt: Republican Michael Bloomberg, the well-heeled incumbent, is expected to beat Democrat Fernando Ferrer, the former Bronx Borough president, in the Democratic-dominated Big Apple.

Meanwhile, in Cleveland, City Council President Frank Jackson, who topped incumbent Mayor Jane Campbell in an eight-way, nonpartisan primary, has the edge going into Nov. 8. In Detroit, embattled Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is badly trailing ex-Deputy Mayor Freman Hendrix.

In St. Paul, Minn., incumbent Mayor Randy Kelly trails ex-City Councilman Chris Coleman, due largely to Kelly’s endorsement of Bush last year. In San Diego, ex-Police Chief Jerry Sanders leads city councilwoman and surfer Donna Frye in a city that has chewed through several mayors in the last year.

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