If you thought 2013 would be a year mercifully devoid of electoral shenanigans - and the partisan sniping that tends to come with - you're in for a rude awakening.
Congress is not up for reelection until 2014, and the next presidential race will not be held until 2016. But there are, in fact, three high-profile elections in 2013 that promise some real fireworks and could say quite a bit about the political environment in the 2014 midterms and beyond.
Two gubernatorial races are scheduled for this November. One, a competitive race in Virginia, has already produced some heated sparring on social issues, and the second, a much less competitive race in New Jersey, features a popular national Republican star - and potential 2016 presidential candidate - fighting to keep his seat in deep-blue New Jersey without alienating Republicans nationally.
And, in June, before either of those races, voters in Massachusetts will select a replacement for former Sen. John Kerry, who now heads the State Department. That race will pit a longtime Democratic representative, Ed Markey, against a Republican Latino former Navy SEAL, Gabriel Gomez, who has edged relatively close to Markey in recent polling despite Democrats' formidable advantage in the Bay State.
Here's a brief rundown of where things stand in each of the three races.
Massachusetts special Senate election
After securing the Republican nomination for the Senate, Gomez wasted little time painting his opponent as a Washington insider, too enmeshed in Washington to attend faithfully to the needs of Massachusetts.
"Ed Markey is doing things the old way, trying to run the economy from the top-down in Washington because he's never had a real job in the real world," Gomez said in a press release on Tuesday. "We need a fresh, new approach. It's time to grow the economy from the bottom-up."
Markey, for his part, has tied his opponent to national Republicans, saying his opposition to taxing the wealthy and stronger gun control demonstrates that he is not in step with Massachusetts values.
Democrats, to some degree, are counting on their inherent advantage in party registration and organization in Massachusetts to help carry Markey over the finish line. "Markey's long tenure as a congressman and heavy party support gives his camp access to the kind of organizations - the door knockers and phone banks, canvassers, the lists of who the reliable base vote is - that matter," CBS News election director Anthony Salvanto explained.
Republicans are hoping that Gomez's Latino background and national security credentials will make a competitive race, and although he has kept relatively close to Markey in recent polls, he still lags behind.
In order to pull another upset like they did in 2010, when former Republican Sen. Scott Brown bested Democratic state Attorney General Martha Coakley in a special election, Massachusetts Republicans will need to hold their own voters and cleave off some who traditionally vote for Democrats.
Gomez would "have to keep it close enough in Boston, sway the working-class voters beyond, and hope for lopsided turnout," said Salvanto.
Turnout remains the biggest unknown: in 2010, depressed turnout among Democrats helped usher Brown into office, but he was given the boot in 2012 when Massachusetts' turnout patterns returned to normal and Elizabeth Warren defeated Brown to reclaim the seat for the Democrats.
Republicans are hoping for a repeat of 2010, while Democrats are banking on a repeat of 2012.
"Call this lean Democrat for now, but hardly certain," Salvanto summarized.
New Jersey governor
President Obama offered New Jersey Democratic gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono no more than a phone call during his tour around the Jersey Shore with Republican Gov. Chris Christie on May 28, which was meant to demonstrate the success of bipartisan Hurricane Sandy relief despite political bickering in other areas.
Mr. Obama is likely to endorse the Democratic nominee in the end, but his relationship with the Republican, and Christie's storm recovery efforts, have helped bolster the governor's favorability across party lines.
Maintaining a consistently high approval rating, Christie has led the polls in the Democratic-leaning state. Christie holds a 32-point advantage in the upcoming November election, according to a May NBC/Marist poll, with 60 percent of New Jersey voters supporting the governor, compared to only 28 percent supporting Buono, also a Massachusetts state senator.
While Christie has received flack for politicizing recovery efforts - like his involvement in "stronger than the storm" advertisements to increase Jersey Shore tourism - the governor, like Mr. Obama, has emphasized his focus on his day job over campaigning. Not that it has stopped Christie from doing both at the same time.
"He seems to be taking no chances with ads centering on his own reforms as well as talking about New Jersey pride, and he's out early defining a Democratic challenger," CBS News' Salvanto said. "Christie has very good approval ratings, especially following his handling of Hurricane Sandy, which makes his re-election look likely at the moment."
Buono lacks not only the name recognition Christie holds, but also the campaign budget he has accumulated. If such disparities persist through November, Christie is likely to prevail in his bid to win a second term.
Christie is also rumored to be weighing a presidential bid in 2016, which may be a complicating factor in his gubernatorial race. While he benefits from a close association with the president in the near-term, as evidenced by his bear hug of the president's storm relief efforts and the relatively strong support it has engendered among New Jersey Democrats, he cannot embrace the president too openly, lest he provoke a revolt from the Republican primary voters who will choose the GOP's 2016 nominee.
While Christie has not said for sure whether he will run, many in the GOP, including 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, have offered words of praise for the New Jersey governor, providing him a strong nudge in the direction of a run.
Political watchers should pay close attention to how Christie navigates that tightrope, embracing the president just enough to assuage New Jersey Democrats but not so much that the right wing decides he isn't fit to carry the Republican banner in 2016.
Historically, Republican gubernatorial candidates in Virginia have benefited when a Democratic president occupies the White House - the same goes for Democrats when Republicans hold the presidency. This year, in the the race between former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe and Virginia Secretary of State Ken Cuccinelli, Salvanto expects a far lower turnout than in a presidential election year, which would presumably benefit the Republicans.
Polls on the election are closely matched, indicating the race could result in either candidate's victory. McAuliffe prevailed in a recent Quinnipiac University poll 43 to 38 percent among registered Virginia voters, but Cuccinelli led a May Washington Post survey 46 to 41 percent among the same demographic.
Though the November outcome remains a world away, in political terms, both candidates have already begun campaigning across the state. The focus for McAuliffe lies in the Democratic-leaning Northern Virginia suburbs, where he has to gin up a large turnout to offset Cuccinelli's advantage in the southern and western areas of the state, which are more rural and traditionally more conservative. The sizable military population in and around Virginia Beach in the southeastern corner of the state could also play a pivotal role in the outcome.
"This summer you'll see both parties trying to get the base motivated," Salvanto said.
Both party's candidates need some support from Northern Virginia to win, though McAuliffe needs significantly more than Cuccinelli. As a result, both candidates have hewed to relatively moderate policy positions in their drive to claim victory, emphasizing middle-of-the-road fare like jobs and education over more contentious social issues.
That imperative - eschewing social issues - has been problematic for Cucinelli's campaign. Cuccinelli's running mate, the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor E.W. Jackson, also a minister, has come under fire for prior statements in which he argued that Planned Parenthood has been "more lethal" for African-American individuals than the Ku Klux Klan, and that gay people are "perverse" and "degenerate," among other controversial comments. Jackson has not apologized for the comments, saying he issued them in his capacity as a pastor, not as a political candidate.
Cuccinelli has distanced himself from the controversy sparked by Jackson's comments, saying he won't explain each and every statement from his running mate and that Virginia voters should strive to evaluate them each as individuals. The risk for Cuccinelli is that his running mate's troubles might remind voters of his own past as a conservative warrior on social issues who has spoken passionately against abortion and gay marriage.
While Virginia voters elect a governor and lieutenant governor separately, raising the possibility that Cuccinelli could prevail while his running mate is defeated, his effort to distance himself from Jackson speaks for itself.
"The Republicans have a balancing act here," Salvanto said. "Their candidate has many views that will appeal to the conservative Republican base, but one key to watch is whether there's enough that appeals to moderates."