Six big off-year elections you might be missing

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A pitched battle between former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and businessman Glenn Youngkin (R) promises to steal the headlines in November’s off-year elections, while a less competitive race between New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) and former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R) is also drawing attention.

Six big off-year elections you might be missing
© Greg Nash A voting booth is seen at an early voting polling site at the Fairfax County Government Center in Fairfax, Va., on Friday, September 17, 2021.

But around the country, voters head to the polls to pick winners in other critical contests, races that will highlight the divides between liberals and conservatives and, in some cases, mainstream Democrats and far more progressive candidates.

Here are the six other contests to watch in November:

Virginia’s House of Delegates

Whether McAuliffe or Youngkin takes the governorship next year, the winner’s ability to pursue his agenda will be determined in large part by the majority in the House of Delegates.

Democrats hold a 55-45 seat majority in the House right now, meaning Republicans need to pick up six seats to win back control. Some of the contests have attracted millions in spending, an unprecedented amount for what are ordinarily inexpensive contests.

Nearly two dozen seats fall in the battleground category of races that were decided by 10 points or fewer two years ago. Democrats hold 16 of those seats, and Republicans only six. Only five seats – four held by Republicans, one by Democrats – voted for the other party’s presidential contender last year.

The closest-fought districts are clustered in three broad chunks: One in the Northern Virginia exurbs, south and east of Arlington and Alexandria; one south of Richmond, stretching to the North Carolina border; and one around the Tidewater and Virginia Beach.

Legislative contests tend to be the most subject to wave elections – recall 2010, when Republicans picked up 680 Democratic-held seats, a disaster for Democrats that is still being felt. If Youngkin wins the governorship, he’s likely to carry a small majority to power with him.

But even if he sweeps to power, Youngkin cannot win total control of Virginia state politics: Democrats control 21 of 40 seats in the state Senate, where members aren’t up for election until 2023.

Boston Mayor

Voters in Boston are set to elect the city’s 55th mayor in November – and, for the first time, the winner will be a woman. City council members Annissa Essaibi George and Michelle Wu, both Democrats running in an ostensibly nonpartisan race, finished ahead of their rivals in September’s primary (The third- and fourth-place finishers were also women).

Essaibi George is seen as an ally of former Mayor Marty Walsh, who quit earlier this year to become President Biden’s Labor Secretary. Wu has support from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D), her old boss, and Sen. Ed Markey (D0 and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D).

The two councillors differ over their approaches to the critical shortage of affordable housing in Boston, police reform and their respective leadership styles.

Two weeks before Election Day, Wu appears in the driver’s seat. A Suffolk University poll conducted for NBC10 and the Boston Globe released this week shows Wu leading by a huge 62 percent to 30 percent margin.

Seattle Mayor and City Attorney

Seattle voters face a familiar choice in November’s election to replace retiring Mayor Jenny Durkan: Do they pick the liberal candidate, in this case former city council President Bruce Harrell, or the really liberal candidate, current council President Lorena Gonzalez?

But the more interesting contest in the Emerald City is the race to replace City Attorney Pete Holmes, who finished third in the top-two primary earlier this year.

Each candidate who bested Holmes has a seemingly disqualifying element to their biography: Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, a former public defender, has tweeted grossly inflammatory messages about the police. In one case, she said police officers should “[e]at some covid laced [excrement] and quit ur jobs [sic].” In another post, Thomas-Kennedy wrote: “Property destruction is a moral imperative.”

Her rival, Ann Davidson, is perhaps even more of a rarity in Seattle: She backed Donald Trump for president in 2020, and she ran for office in 2020 as a Republican.

Most prominent Seattle-area Democrats, including former Govs. Gary Locke (D) and Christine Gregoire (D), are backing Davidson. For Seattleites accustomed to choosing between mainstream and progressive Democrats, their options in this race are going to prompt some uncomfortable decisions.

Buffalo Mayor

If this year’s election contests have a theme, it’s that longtime incumbents are not safe, even among their core supporters. Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown (D) was among the mayors – along with those from Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Rochester – to lose their Democratic primaries this year.

Brown lost to India Walton, a community activist and nurse who is affiliated with the Democratic Socialists of America and the Working Families Party.

But Brown is not going without a fight: He has launched a write-in campaign as a member of the Buffalo Party. Public polling shows Brown leading Walton, but it’s always hard to test a race with a write-in candidate.

New York Election Reform

New York has some of the most outdated election laws in the nation, a legacy of the Dutch settlers who first colonized New Amsterdam and set up an electoral system that effectively barred anyone other than wealthy white landowners from casting a ballot.

Four centuries later, and after a few years of total Democratic control of the state, New Yorkers will get the chance to modernize their election laws. They will get the chance to vote on constitutional amendments allowing for same-day voter registration and no-excuse absentee voting.

At the same time, Democrats who now control the legislature and the governorship are moving to cement their power over the redistricting process. Proposal 1 would give the majority party more control over the decennial mapmaking system, deleting provisions in the constitution passed in 2014, when Republicans controlled the state Senate.

Republicans call it a partisan power grab, one that passed the state Senate on a purely party line vote; in the Democratic-controlled Assembly, nine Democrats voted with Republicans against the measure. Now voters get a final say.

Texas Ban on Some Public Health Measures

The beginning of the coronavirus pandemic spurred local officials in some of Texas’s largest counties to ban public gatherings – including religious services. That didn’t sit well with most Texas legislators, who have pushed to block some public health measures in response.

One of those efforts is Texas Proposition 3, which would bar local officials that limit religious services or organizations. Another is Proposition 6, which would allow those in nursing or assisted living facilities to designate an outside caregiver who could not be banned from in-person visitation.

Those measures are part of a flood of legislative bills across the country that would stymie public health officials from exercising the powers they held when the pandemic began. Expect to see more such ballot initiatives in 2022, either driven by citizen petitioners or referred by state legislators.

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