Voters Head to Polls in Virginia, New Jersey to Elect New Governors

Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe watches as President Barack Obama speaks during a campaign rally in Arlington, Virginia on November 3, 2013. Chris Christie delivers remarks at the Brookings Institution on July 9, 2012 in Washington, D.C.

Virginia Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe, left, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie lead in their state’s gubernatorial polls heading into election day.

Voters in New Jersey and Virginia head to the polls Tuesday to elect governors, in a pair of off-year election races that offer a telling tale about the future of the Republican Party.

[READ: Christie Set to Win in N.J., Start Talk of 2016]

In deep blue New Jersey, incumbent Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, is expected to steam-roll his Democratic opponent, state Sen. Barbara Buono, fueling speculation about his potential presidential aspirations.

Christie, the bombastic former U.S. Attorney, first became a conservative cult hero for taking on the teachers unions and reforming the state’s pension plans. He gained across the aisle support last year when he led the recovery effort following Hurricane Sandy and praising President Barack Obama’s role leading into the 2012 presidential election.

He leads Buono by about 24 points, according to a polling average tallied by Democrats have already begun to express regret for not throwing more support to Buono, who was far-outmatched by Christie in a state Obama won by 17 points in 2012. Pundits expect a blowout win by Christie would set him up well to make the case for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

Meanwhile in Virginia, Republican Ken Cuccinelli trails Democrat Terry McAuliffe in what many voters view as a race to the bottom. Both politicians are viewed unfavorably by the electorate, with Cuccinelli alienating many Virginians with his conservative social views and McAuliffe, a businessman and prolific Democratic Party fundraiser with a reputation as an over-the-top schmoozer.

[OPINION: How to Lose a Purple State]

And though McAuliffe leads in the latest polling by about 7 points and has benefited with high-profile campaign appearances by Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, former President Bill Clinton and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, Democrats are concerned a lack of voter enthusiasm could lead to a photo finish.

Unlike Christie who moved to court independent voters, Cuccinelli has highlighted his role as the first attorney general to sue the federal government regarding the Affordable Care Act in order to fire up Virginia conservatives. His base voters have consistently proven to be more excited to vote for him than Democrats are for McAuliffe, polling has shown. But he’s hurt by the presence of Libertarian Party candidate Robert Sarvis, who has polled as high as 10 percent and is siphoning more voters away from Cuccinelli than McAuliffe.

If McAuliffe wins, it will mark the first time in recent years voters in Virginia elected a governor from the same party as the president, something that could indicate Virginia’s drift from a purple state to blue is becoming more pronounced.

[OPINION: The Race in Virginia Is Closer Than You Think]

More broadly, the two elections highlight the current divide in the national Republican Party, as leaders seek to balance catering to their base on issues while broadening their appeal to growing voter groups such as Hispanics, African-Americans and women. If Cuccinelli loses more badly than expected, he could serve as the canary in the coal mine for Republicans when it comes to acknowledging what it takes to win statewide and national races.

Voters in New York City and Boston will also elect mayors on Tuesday, with Democrat Bill de Blasio set up to become the first Democrat in charge of the Big Apple since 1989.

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