The top 6 political races to watch in 2013

Yes, the red and blue paint is still wet on the 2012 election map. But it's not too early to start gaming out the new year

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has seen a great increase in popularity since his "post–Hurricane Sandy bump".
(Image credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

For anyone still suffering from election fatigue, here's some good news: In terms of momentous races, 2013 is no 2012. But the paucity of marquee contests doesn't mean there won't be any drama at the ballot box this year — in fact, quite the opposite. The nation's biggest cities are picking new chief executives, and a few states are already gearing up for potentially epic face-offs in November. Here's a look at the six races to keep an eye on in 2013:

1. New Jersey governor: Chris Christie's big dance

Christie, once seen as a divisive and abrasive governor, has already launched his bid for a second term amid amazingly high popularity numbers — 77 percent, according to a late-November Fairleigh Dickinson University poll. But the Republican star's post–Hurricane Sandy bump will inevitably fade somewhat before November. The only Democrat who has entered the race so far is state Sen. Barbara Buono — who trails Christie, 60 percent to 22 percent, in a recent Rutgers poll. Cory Booker, the extremely popular Democratic mayor of Newark, says he won't run. The primary is June 4.

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2. Massachusetts Senate: The race to replace John Kerry

Barring a remarkable upset, Kerry (D) will leave the Senate to become Obama's Secretary of State in early 2013, and Gov. Deval Patrick (D) has indicated he will appoint a placeholder senator who won't run in the special election in May or June. The most obvious candidate on the Republican side is outgoing Sen. Scott Brown (R), who won the last Massachusetts special Senate election in 2010 but lost his seat in the 2012 general election. In a late-December WBUR poll, Brown led a generic Democratic candidate 47 percent to 39 percent, and his favorability rating was a remarkably high 58 percent — pretty good for a man Bay Staters just rejected, and higher than any of his potential rivals. But of course Brown, who hasn't said if he's even running, would face a real Democrat not a generic one, and "contrary to many pundits' expectations, Kerry's elevation to the State Department will not automatically lead to Scott Brown's return to the Senate," says Ben Jacobs at The Daily Beast. Massachusetts is a solidly blue state, and Brown's best shot would be Democrats sinking themselves in a "furious and divisive" primary. To head that off, "the Democratic establishment inside and outside Massachusetts is quickly lining up behind Rep. Ed Markey (D)," says Rachel Weiner at The Washington Post. Kerry himself is backing the 26-year House veteran, as are Ted Kennedy's widow, Vicki Kennedy, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

3. New York City mayor: Looking toward a post-Bloomberg future

Media mogul Michael Bloomberg (I), elected as a Republican right after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, is term-limited (again — he pushed through a law in 2009 that allowed him to seek a third term), so New York is gearing up to elect its first new mayor in 12 years. And "for the first time since 1989, a Democratic candidate has a chance at winning in a city where the Democrats outnumber the Republicans 3-1," says Ken Rudin at NPR. Since Hillary Clinton reportedly turned down Bloomberg's entreaties to fill his shoes, the early favorite is City Council Speaker Christine Quinn (D), who would be the first woman to lead the city. Still, the potential Democratic roster is long: Former city comptroller Bill Thompson, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, and current Comptroller John Liu are all possibilities. On the Republican side, former Bronx borough president (and former Democrat) Adolfo Carrion Jr. is eyeing a run — and could we be lucky enough that Donald Trump doesn't throw his hat in the ring? The primary takes place in September.

4. Virginia governor: A Clintonite-Tea Party showdown?

"Imagine the two most polarizing politicians in a state," says The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza. "Then imagine them running against one another." That's the most likely outcome in Virginia, where the race to replace term-limited Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) is shaping up to be Attorney General Ken Cucinelli (R), a conservative darling, versus former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, a confidante of Bill Clinton. Both men are popular among their respective bases, and hated by the other side, says Cillizza. "Neither man has an obvious appeal to the ideological middle of the Commonwealth, but both have to find one if they want to win. This is going to be a very nasty race." The two most likely alternatives, Sen. Mark Warner (D) and Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R), have declined to run, though Bolling hasn't ruled out a third-party run. The Democrats' primary and GOP convention is June 11.

5. Los Angeles mayor: Life after Villaraigosa

Antonio Villaraigosa (D) is term-limited, and the three frontrunners to replace him are current office holders with strong ties to organized labor. "Like New York, Los Angeles has never had a female mayor, but Controller Wendy Greuel and Councilwoman Jan Perry are hoping to change that," says NPR's Rudin. City Councilman Eric Garcetti is running, too. Along with corralling the union vote, notes Cillizza, "getting support from Latino voters will be huge in a city where Hispanics make up 40 percent of the vote." The primary will be in March, and the election itself in May.

6. Illinois' congressional race: Who will replace Jesse Jackson Jr.?

A late addition to the calendar, prompted by Jackson's not-unexpected resignation, the race for the Chicagoland congressional district heated up quickly. All the viable candidates are Democrats, and except for former Rep. Debbie Halvorson, all of them are black — former NFL linebacker (and incoming state senator) Napoleon Harris, alderman Anthony Beale, and State Sen. Toi Hutchinson. "Black leaders openly fear that an election with multiple black candidates could elect Halvorson," says Rudin. We'll find out soon enough: The primary — "tantamount to deciding the winner in this overwhelmingly Democratic district" — is Feb. 26.

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