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A politico's guide to what to look for in next week's elections

It's Just Politics with Zoe Clark and Rick Pluta

Local elections across Michigan are coming Tuesday. And, there are also some interesting races across the country. The results of which politicos and prognosticators will be mining for hints, tips, and adumbrations (yes, we really just did use the word “adumbrations”) of what Election 2014 may have in store.

Elections in 2013, like in 2014, will be in the off-presidential cycle, with similar dynamics in play. Here in Michigan, we’ll have big statewide races next year for governor and U.S. Senator, and two or three congressional races that could be hot.

So, for us, 2013 is a kind of scouting report, a chance to look for any developing trends. Similar to January 2010 when Republican Scott Brown’s Senate victory in super-blue Massachusetts was a preview of the November 2010 national GOP blow-out. Brown’s win was seen as an early indicator of the election to come.

This Tuesday we’ll be watching for anything that defies expectations.

Republican Chris Christie is expected to win reelection in New Jersey and Democrat Terry McAuliffe is expected to win in Virginia; a state that was once reliably conservative but has become purple as its demographics change.

We’ll be watching for both an upset and the margins of victory.

If it’s a blowout, Republican leaders in Michigan will use that as evidence to argue for a more centrist approach to campaigning in 2014: Be conservative, but appeal to the middle. That could make a difference not just in primaries next year, but also the Republican nominating convention - where Tea Partiers have been pretty dominant lately.

If not an upset, slim margins of victory, especially in Virginia, don’t offer a lot of help in the prediction-department. Wins can just be attributed to the idiosyncrasies of that particular race. However, big movements of voters in one direction or another is a different story.

We’ll be looking for signals that the GOP brand has recovered - or not - from the 2012 Presidential debacle and whether - as a lot of the polling suggests - Republicans are being held responsible for the federal shutdown.

We’ll also be watching voter-turnout and whether the Obama majority can in any way transcend having him at the top of the ballot. In order for Democrats to succeed next year, they’ll need to boost turnout above traditional non-presidential years. We’ll see how Democrats in other states succeed in turning out African American and minority voters.  Demographics aren’t necessarily destiny... turnout is.

Lessons learned from what happens Tuesday will be digested over the next several months and applied in the coming year. New technology, messaging, fundraising, and ways to use social  media will all be picked over and re-examined by various politicos and campaigners. There are also a couple of special congressional elections later this year that we’ll be watching, in order to see if they offer case studies on how things might go in two or three hot congressional races in Michigan next year.

We’ll also be looking at local races and ballot questions in Michigan on Tuesday. LGBT rights is on the ballot in Royal Oak, and its certainly an issue in some city council races. In Holland, for example, where there is a gay candidate on the ballot, and a continuing local controversy over the city council’s refusal to adopt an ordinance that bans discrimination based on sexual orientation.

There could be a policy-making effect too, as Republicans in the state Legislature gauge whether it’s safe - politically safe - to support adding LGBT protections to Michigan’s civil rights law. Wide success could fuel a push to put a repeal of Michigan’s gay marriage ban on the ballot next year, although Michigan’s LGBT movement still seems pretty committed to waiting until 2016.

Meantime, marijuana decriminalization is on the ballot in Lansing, Jackson, and Ferndale. Some marijuana advocates are hoping to put something on the statewide ballot next year.

Now, of course, this isn’t all an exact science. Every election is different, with different forces and different issues in play. But all of the wave elections we’ve seen in recent years didn’t occur without signals of what was coming. And, after next year’s election, we’ll be looking for clues on what it all means for 2016. And after 2016, we’ll be watching for...

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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