Five races to watch in 2017

Virginia governor hopeful Ed Gillespie leads the GOP field

After 2016’s bruising election cycle, 2017 might seem like a break for Republicans and Democrats to gear up for 2018’s midterms.

But a handful of 2017 contests could serve as an indicator of the mood of the electorate in the early months of Donald Trump’s presidency.

Here are five races to watch in 2017:

Virginia governor

There is so far only one Democrat in the race to replace outgoing Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who’s term-limited to only one four-year term. Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam has a clear path to the Democratic nomination. 

But there is an abundance of intrigue on the Republican side, which is shaping up to be a fight between Trump Republicans and the state’s GOP establishment. 

{mosads}The early favorite is veteran GOP operative Ed Gillespie, a past chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC) and former adviser to President George W. Bush.

Gillespie is coming off a spirited but ultimately unsuccessful 2014 Senate challenge to Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), which saw Gillespie trail in the polls only to lose by less than 1 percentage point to Warner.

But he’ll get a spirited challenge from Corey Stewart, a rabble-rousing northern Virginia county leader running as an unapologetic Trump supporter.

Stewart, the chairman of Prince William County’s Board of Supervisors, has spent a decade railing against illegal immigration from his local perch. It’s a position that’s led Stewart to declare that he was “Trump before Trump was Trump.”

Stewart was once a Virginia co-chairman for Trump’s campaign but was fired after staging a protest outside of the RNC at a critical juncture in the presidential campaign, as Trump was dealing with blowback over his “Access Hollywood” video remarks about groping women.

State Sen. Frank Wagner (R) is also in the race.

A Quinnipiac University survey released last week found Gillespie with a handy lead in the race. Gillespie received 24 percent support, compared to Stewart and Wagner, who took only 4 percent support each.

The field could still be fluid, though. Rep. Rob Wittmann (R-Va.) was still in the race when the survey was taken and polled at 10 percent support, but he’s since left the race.

Still, Stewart could make noise. It will be telling whether Trump supporters rally behind him to challenge Gillespie, who is viewed as a more mainstream Republican.

Northam, the Democrat, has a slight edge in the poll over Gillespie, leading 38 percent to 34 percent in the Quinnipiac poll. Northam leads Stewart by 11 points and Wagner by 9.

Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton defeated Trump in Virginia this year by 5.4 percentage points.

New Jersey governor

Former Goldman Sachs executive Phil Murphy is steamrolling toward New Jersey’s Democratic nomination for governor.

Murphy has loaned his campaign millions of dollars while picking up union endorsements and the support of state Democratic leaders. 

Murphy’s momentum and deep pockets have been enough to keep two significant potential Democratic primary opponents — Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop and state Senate President Stephen Sweeney — on the sidelines. Both have backed Murphy. 

So far, Murphy’s only primary competition is from Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D).

The Republican side is more crowded, but the GOP likely faces an uphill battle to pick a successor for term-limited Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.), who is one of the most unpopular governors in the country.

Christie has been badly damaged by the “Bridgegate” scandal, which recently resulted in two criminal convictions against former Christie allies implicated in an attempt to close traffic lanes for political payback. A recent Rutgers University survey found only 19 percent of New Jersey voters approve of the job he’s done, compared with 75 percent who disapprove. 

New Jersey Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno (R), an occasional Christie foe, is expected to stage a run anyway.

Guadagno publicly broke from Christie on a high-profile infrastructure bill in October and refused to back Trump, even as the governor emerged as one of the president-elect’s most high-profile supporters.

Steve Rogers, the Nutley township commissioner and a Trump supporter, is already in the race, as is Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R).

Rep. Xavier Becerra’s (D-Calif.) open seat

The longtime congressman is ditching his downtown Los Angeles seat to become California’s attorney general, and the race to replace him is shaping up to be a crowded one.

Becerra, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, has served since 1993. Becerra’s district, which is nearly two-thirds Latino, is expected to remain in Democratic hands. The vacancy gives another ambitious California politician an opportunity to serve in Congress. 

State Assemblyman Jimmy Gómez (D) is seen as the early front-runner after scoring endorsements from high-profile Democrats, including Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Sen.-elect Kamala Harris, as well as five lawmakers of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. 

But Gómez likely won’t be alone on the ballot. Nearly a dozen candidates have declared or expressed interest in running, with the list of potential contenders including labor activists, a prosecutor, a former White House staffer and a former top aide for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) presidential campaign. 

Most of the announced candidates are Democrats, but there’s a declared Republican who previously considered running for Congress as a Democrat and a Green Party candidate who unsuccessfully challenged Becerra as a Democratic write-in candidate this year. 

A special election will likely be held in late spring of 2017, according to the Los Angeles Times. All of the candidates will square off in a single primary, regardless of party affiliation, with the top two candidates advancing to the general election.

Rep. Tom Price’s (R-Ga.) open seat

Price, a vocal opponent of ObamaCare, has been tapped to serve as Trump’s secretary of Health and Human Services.

While the Georgia Republican easily won a seventh term, Clinton came surprisingly close to carrying his suburban Atlanta district, losing to Trump by less than 2 points.

This could ignite Democrats’ hopes of an early pickup opportunity, but Republicans are still favored to carry the district if Price leaves for the Cabinet. Price’s seat has been previously held by prominent Georgia GOP politicians, including former Speaker Newt Gingrich and Sen. Johnny Isakson.

The open seat is also likely to become crowded, with a handful of challengers on both sides of the aisle eying the race.

For Republicans, state Sen. Judson Hill has declared his candidacy, while other current and former state legislators are also weighing bids, including Price’s wife, state Rep. Betty Price. 

Democrats are hoping to coalesce behind a candidate, but their field is growing, too. The primary competition includes state Sen. Ron Slotin, attorney Joshua McLaurin and former state Rep. Sally Harrell, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

If confirmed, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) is required to call a special election and any runoffs 10 days after Price’s confirmation, with the election likely to be held about two months from that date, according to the Marietta Daily Journal.

Of course, all the maneuvering becomes moot if Price’s Cabinet nomination fails in the Senate. Price’s support of large-scale Medicare changes has made his bid one of the most contested nominations for Senate Democrats and a potentially damaging one for Republicans.

Rep. Ryan Zinke’s (R-Mont.) open seat

The Montana Republican has also been named to a role in the upcoming Trump administration as Interior secretary.

Republican state Sens. Scott Sales and Ed Buttrey have both announced they’ll run for the open seat if Zinke is confirmed. Sales was recently elected to serve as state Senate president.

Other Republicans considering a run include state Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, state auditor-elect Matt Rosendale, and Gary Carlson, a retired U.S. Marine Corps officer who pens an online conservative newsletter.

Businessman Greg Gianforte (R), who lost a gubernatorial bid against Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock in November, could also be in the mix. Gianforte has said he’s been urged to run.

On the Democratic side, state Sen. Amanda Curtis is one of the first from her party to express interest in running. Curtis was the Democrats’ replacement candidate in the 2014 Montana Senate race.

Democrats targeted Montana’s lone congressional district in the 2016 cycle as a long shot, but Zinke easily defeated Democrat Denise Juneau. Republicans are likely to maintain their grip on the at-large seat.

If Zinke is confirmed, a special election will be held within 85 to 100 days of his vacancy.

Tags Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Johnny Isakson Mark Warner Rob Wittman Xavier Becerra

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