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Posted at 11:44 AM ET, 01/14/2011

The 10 best races of 2011

By Chris Cillizza

The start of the new year means a whole new set of races to watch and, as importantly, to mine for clues about the political atmosphere in which the 2012 presidential race -- as well as a slew of House, Senate and gubernatorial contests -- will take place.

While the focus for most political junkies will be on governor's race in Kentucky and Mississippi -- not to mention a race for Chicago mayor featuring former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel -- there are a slew of other contests worth watching.

Friday Line

Our top 10 races of 2011 are below. What did we miss? The comments section awaits.

10. San Francisco Mayor: Gavin Newsom's ascension to the lieutenant governor spot left a vacancy that was filled by city administrator Edwin Lee. Lee got the unanimous support of the city board of supervisors, but he vowed not to run for a full-term, thereby allowing plenty of ambitious politicians to run for the seat. And run they have. So far, the field of possible candidates includes former Supervisors Tony Hall and Bevan Dufty, state Sen. Leland Yee, City Attorney Dennis Herrera, City Assessor Phil Ting and venture capitalist Joanna Rees.

9. Philadelphia Mayor: Incumbent Mayor Michael Nutter (D) may face a challenge from two former gubernatorial hopefuls: state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams (D), who came in third in last May's Democratic gubernatorial primary, and businessman Tom Knox (D), who dropped out of the gubernatorial primary last January and may run in the mayoral race as an independent. Though the field is still forming, Nutter looks well-positioned; he remains a relatively popular incumbent and has already begun rounding up support from some Williams allies.

8. Virginia state Senate: Democrats were lucky they didn't have to defend any Senate seats in 2009 or 2010, when Republicans wiped the floor in the governor's race, the state House and Congress. The GOP has a massive lead in the state House -- 59-39 -- and Bob McDonnell (R) is the Commonwealth's governor, so the state Senate is the last line of defense for Democrats.

7. Mississippi governor: The Republican primary may well be the entire game in the Magnolia State race to succeed term limited Gov. Haley Barbour. Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant is the favorite but businessman Dave Dennis is also in the mix and gaining some support. Democrats have two candidates -- Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny Dupree and businessman Bill Luckett -- but only the longest of shots at winning.

6. Dallas Mayor: Current Mayor Tom Leppert looks likely to run for the open seat created by the retirement of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R). That will set off a very competitive race to replace him in one of the state's largest and most important cities. The city council will likely be a major launching pad for would-be candidates with one -- Ron Natinsky -- already all but running.

5. Indianapolis Mayor: Republican Mayor Greg Ballard came into office in 2007 as a sign of GOP hope in Indiana's largest city, pulling a shocker by defeating a two-term incumbent mayor Bart Peterson (D) and bringing in a Republican-controlled city-county council with him. But this is still Indianapolis. His most likely opponent is Democrat Melina Kennedy, who was a deputy mayor under Peterson.

4. Mississippi state Senate: Republicans evened the score at 26 seats apiece this week after winning the special election for the seat Rep. Alan Nunnelee (R-Miss.) left behind. Democrats had held a two-seat edge before the November elections, but one Democrat switched to the GOP side last month. Democrats have a much bigger majority in the state House, which could also be in play if southern Democrats continue to struggle like they did in 2010. But the state Senate is closer to going Republican.

3. Louisiana state House/Senate: Five Pelican State legislators have switched parties since the November election, and in the process they handed control of the state House to Republicans without an election being held. The state Senate is also close as can be, with Democrats maintaining a 20-19 edge. In no other state are the two chambers so closely contested.

2. Chicago Mayor: In recent weeks, Emanuel has widened his lead over his three major rivals -- former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, former Chicago Board of Education President Gery Chico and City Clerk Miguel Del Valle. But the Feb. 22 contest is just the first step; if the top candidate doesn't clear the 50-percent mark, the race to succeed retiring Mayor Richard M. Daley goes to an Apr. 5 runoff. Emanuel's old boss, former President Bill Clinton, visits the Windy City on Tuesday to stump on the candidate's behalf.

1. Kentucky governor: The Republican primary will be -- another -- test of how strong the tea party remains in its ongoing battle with the GOP establishment. State Sen. David Williams is the establishment pick while businessman Phil Moffett is hoping to tap into the same energy that catapulted Rand Paul into a convincing 2010 primary victory over Trey Grayson in the Bluegrass State. Waiting in the general election is Gov. Steve Beshear (D) who is well funded and positioned for a second term but must face the reality of running in a very conservative minded state where his party affiliation could hinder him.

By Chris Cillizza  | January 14, 2011; 11:44 AM ET
Categories:  The Line  
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