Get your last bits of election speculation and guessing out now—because starting Tuesday night we will have actual facts. People will vote. Candidates will win. Careers will end. Power in Washington will shift. There are 435 elections in the House, 37 in the Senate, and 37 gubernatorial elections. To help you sift through the returns, here's a reader and viewer's guide to some key things to watch.
Where we stand
The official unemployment rate is 9.6 percent, though the true picture may be closer to 17 percent. In states with key races, the unemployment rate is worse: In Nevada it's 14.4 percent; in Ohio it's 10 percent. President Obama's approval rating is about 45 percent. The generic ballot shows voters picking Republicans over Democrats by seven points. The congressional approval rating is below 20 percent. Almost $4 billion has been spent on the election.
House contests to watch
There are nearly 100 contested House races to watch. (Follow them all on the spreadsheet I created that tracks votes, the partisan makeup of their district, and Tea Party support.) All but five represent possible Republican pickup opportunities. Each one is interesting, and those of you who want to talk through all of them can stay after class. Here, though, are a few pairs of races to watch to get a sense of whether this will be a big night for the GOP or a gargantuan night.
- Indiana's 2nd and 9th districts. Indiana polls close at 6 p.m. ET. It's a pundit's first shot at fact-based speculation. Democrat Baron Hill represents Indiana's 9th District, which is one of the 48 John McCain won in 2008. * It is a Republican district that Hill represented and then lost and then won again in the Democratic wave of 2006. This is the kind of place Republicans should win. The 2nd District is a little harder. Obama won that district, represented by Democrat Joe Donnelly, with 54 percent of the vote, and it is less Republican. (Indiana election returns)
- Georgia's 2nd and 8th districts. The South is not Democratic territory. The 8th, represented by Democrat Jim Marshall, is heavily Republican. Obama got only 43 percent of the vote there in 2008. If it's a very big night, Democrat Sanford Bishop will lose in the 2nd District. That district leans Democratic, and Obama won there with 54 percent of the vote. Almost 50 percent of the district is African-American, a key part of the Democratic base that needs to turn out for Democrats everywhere. (Georgia election results)
- Virginia's 11th and 5th districts. Democrat Gerald Connolly represents the wealthiest district in the United States, Virginia's 11th, which is perhaps why he supports the extension of the Bush tax cuts for those making more than $250,000. Obama carried it in 2008 with 57 percent of the vote. It is a quintessential suburban district. The 5th is one that Republicans have been planning to win. It's a McCain district, and Democrat Tom Perriello won by only a small margin last time. (Virginia election results)
- Ohio's 15th and 16th districts. A few months ago, I asked strategists from both parties to each pick a district that they thought exemplified the election for their side. The Democrats picked the 15th because Mary Jo Kilroy, the Democrat running in a rematch against Republican Steve Stivers, stood to benefit from a concentrated national effort to turn out the vote in her area. The Republicans picked the 16th District because it leans Republican, incumbent Democrat John Boccieri is a freshman, and the district was one of the 48 John McCain won. (Ohio election results)
- Colorado's 4th and 7th districts. Democrat Betsy Markey in the 4th should be a casualty of the night. She's in a strong Republican district that John McCain carried two years ago. In the 7th, Democrat Ed Perlmutter represents a Democratic district Obama carried with 59 percent of the vote. Democrats drawn by Colorado's Senate race should help him. (Colorado election results)
If you are a Democrat you can light a little candle for the few Republican seats that your party might pick up. For every one that the Democrats win, the Republican pick up needs to be one seat greater. They might be the difference between Republicans needing 39 seats and 44 seats. The districts to watch are Delaware's at-large, Florida's 25th, Hawaii's 1st, Illinois 10th, Louisiana's 2nd and California's 3rd and Washington's 8th.
Five Senate races to watch
To review: Republicans have to take 10 Senate seats from Democrats to gain control of the Senate. Three are pretty much gone: Indiana, North Dakota, and Arkansas. Wisconsin looks good for Republicans. Of the six remaining, almost all are toss-ups. This means it could be a very late night of vote counting. If Democrats win the early-poll-closing states of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, the GOP will have to run the table the rest of the night—including California, which looks tough going into Election Day. Here's a quick rundown of places to watch to see how the night is going.
- West Virginia: Joe Manchin is a popular governor, but that hasn't translated into an advantage in his Senate race. Watch Cabell County, the second largest in the state, it may be the swing county. The southern-border counties of Logan, Mingo, and Raleigh are Democratic territory. It's coal country, which is why Manchin was firing his rifle at the cap-and-trade legislation in his advertising. Republican John Raese has gone after those voters, too. (West Virginia election results)
- Pennsylvania: Obama campaigned just a few days ago in Philadelphia. Did he turn out students and African-American voters for Democrat Joe Sestak? The suburbs around Philadelphia—Montgomery, Bucks, and Chester counties—are the key area to watch. Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 1.2 million in Pennsylvania, but independent voters, one-fifth of whom said they were still undecided heading into Election Day, will be as crucial to the election as they have been in the past. Obama won independents and moderates by 20 points in 2008, but in a recent Quinnipiac poll, Republican Pat Toomey was way ahead among independents, 52 percent to 39 percent. (Pennsylvania election results)
- Nevada: This is a classic test of turnout vs. enthusiasm. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has the former and none of the latter. For Sharron Angle, the situation is reversed. Can Reid turn out a lot of Democrats in Clark County around Las Vegas? That's the state's largest county and a Democratic stronghold. A crucial House race in the 3rd District between Joe Heck and Dina Titus may be one place to see which party is turning out voters. Washoe County is a traditional swing area, but Angle is from there. Will familiarity breed contempt or give her the win? Also, watch how the "none of the above" does. If it's more than three or four percentage points, that means voters are protesting but not voting for Angle, which is good for Reid. (Nevada election results)
- Illinois: Perhaps it's a sign of the dire political mood that the trophy race for Obama's old Senate seat is so tarnished. Democrat Alexi Giannoulias was a loan officer for his family bank that made loans to people connected with organized crime. Republican Mark Kirk serially embellished his résumé. Republicans had hoped to make this a "character" campaign about the Democrat, but as one GOP strategist said, "You can't do that when your candidate has no character." Republicans have tried to make Giannoulias a captive of the Chicago machine, and he'll have to hope that machine turns out the vote for him in Chicago. Kirk will rely on the traditionally more conservative voters in the southern part of the state. He represented the affluent 10th Congressional District outside Chicago and will rely on those suburban voters in the collar counties around the big city: DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry, and Will. (Illinois election results)
- Colorado: Strategists from both parties agree that incumbent Democrat Sen. Michael Bennet has run a good campaign and Ken Buck has not run a great one. That may not matter if this is a big wave election. Adams, Arapahoe, and Jefferson counties circle Denver and are considered Colorado's swing counties. Bennet has to hope he can appeal to moderate voters and women there. Republicans need to turn out their vote in El Paso (Colorado Springs), Douglas (south of Denver), Weld (Eastern Plains), and Mesa (Western Slope) counties. Also look to Larimer, a northern county in the middle of the state, that has a strong Tea Party movement. Both Bennet and Buck did well there during the primaries. (Colorado election results)
- Washington: If control of the Senate is close, this one could keep us up for days. Most voters cast their ballots by mail. You can do so on Election Day, and the final vote isn't made official for 10 days. One-quarter of the vote comes in after the polling places close. The calculus here is simple. Patty Murray, the incumbent Democrat, will try to turn out voters in King County, home of Seattle. She'll have to match her turnout in '98 and '04, which was about 65 percent. If she can do that, she can split the vote in the counties that border King: Snohomish and Pierce. Republican Dino Rossi has to do well in Clark County in the southwest corner and in the GOP strongholds in the east. (Washington election results)
Governors' races to watch
On big national election nights, governors don't get the love they should. Yet there are two important reasons to pay attention: redistricting and battleground positioning. Governors play an important role in the once-a-decade process of redrawing congressional districts. The party in control of the governor's mansion and the legislature can draw those districts in a way that helps members of their party get elected. In Texas, the last time this happened, the Republicans who ran the show took six congressional seats away from Democrats.
The key states to watch with big redistricting implications are:
- Ohio: Republicans need challenger John Kasich to defeat incumbent Democrat Ted Strickland—and pick up seven seats in the state legislature—to gain control. (Ohio results)
- Florida: Republicans already control the legislature, and a win by GOP candidate Rick Scott, who is dead even with Democrat Alex Sink, would give the party a lock in the state. (Florida results)
- Pennsylvania: Republican candidate Tom Corbett leads Democrat Dan Onorato. If the GOP wins the race for governor, Democrats have to hold their slim seven-seat majority in the state House. (Pennsylvania results)
In both Michigan and Wisconsin, the GOP candidate is favored for governor. Democrats have to hope that the Michigan House stays in their party and that in Wisconsin they hold on to narrow majorities in the House or Senate.
The other reason to pay attention to governor's races is that many of them are in key presidential battleground states. Strategists believe that a candidate has an easier time in a state if he or she can take advantage of the organization of the top elected official there. Nine key battleground states totaling 121 electoral votes are up for grabs in 2010: the five above plus Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, and Iowa.
There was indeed a giant enthusiasm gap in this election: between the people who used that term repeatedly and the audience who grew sick of it quickly. Now we'll see just how much more fired up conservatives were than Democrats. The key figure to watch going into the election was the difference between registered voters and likely voters. In the last Gallup poll, Democrats were down among both: Republicans led among registered voters 48 percent to 44 percent and among likely voters by a whopping 15 points, 55 percent to 40 percent. It was, said Gallup, "a lead large enough to suggest that regardless of turnout, the Republicans will win more than the 40 seats needed to give them the majority in the U.S. House."
So the question of the evening Tuesday is not whether Democrats can match Republicans everywhere. They can't. The question is whether, when Democrats put on their full effort in specific places, they were able to build a wall against Republican advances. Specific toss-up districts to watch to see if all the effort paid off: Ohio's 1st, Ohio's 15th, Wisconsin's 7th, Nevada's 3rd, and New York's 1st.
Is Obama toxic?
A number of Democrats tried to keep their distance from President Obama this year. Gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink didn't want him to come back to Florida. In West Virginia, Joe Manchin—the governor and a candidate for Senate—refused to endorse Obama's re-election. In Indiana's 2nd District, Rep. Joe Donnelly ran an ad touting his conservative stance on immigration over pictures of Obama and Pelosi. "That may not be what the Washington crowd wants, but I don't work for them," Donnelly says. "I work for you." Rep. Gene Taylor in Mississippi's 4th District said he didn't vote for Obama. (And all this is to say nothing of the Democratic voters who are distancing themselves from Obama. A recent AP poll showed 47 percent want him to have a primary challenge.)
Other candidates under threat did embrace Obama. Rep. Tom Perriello of Virginia called for the firing of Obama's economic advisers earlier this year, but he welcomed the president's visit at the end of the campaign. Sen. Barbara Boxer appeared with Obama at a late rally in California and put him in her final ad. Incumbent Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland of Ohio campaigned with Obama several times, including just a few days before the election.
Which group of candidates—those who invited the president in, or those who kept their distance—fares better on Election Day is another theme worth watching.
Which "old bulls" will go down?
During the final pre-election excitement, when the projection for Republican gains appeared to grow by an order of magnitude every day, there was talk about 26-term veteran John Dingell being under threat of losing his seat. If the longest-serving member in House history loses, it will be a gargantuan night for the GOP. Most election prognosticators don't believe that will happen. But that doesn't mean there won't be losses among members who have been in the House for a long time. Places to look for possible career-enders: 18-term Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota, 17-term Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, 14-term Rep. Rick Boucher of Virginia, 15-term Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, 14-term Rep. John Spratt of South Carolina, and 13-term Rep. Paul Kanjorski of Pennsylvania.
Someone is going to make history
No matter what happens tonight it will be historic. Here are some bits of history that are likely to be undone:
- In the House takeover years of 1994 by Republicans and 2006 by Democrats, no incumbent of either winning party lost.
- In Pennsylvania, the governor's office switches parties every eight years, which means Republican Tom Corbett should win. But in Pennsylvania an attorney general has never won the office of governor, which means the Democrat Dan Onorato should win.
- Since World War II, the House has changed parties six times and in every case the Senate has switched, too.
- Colleen Hanabusa in Hawaii can retake the 1st Congressional District from six-month incumbent Charles Djou, a Republican who won it in a special election. But in the state's entire history, a federal office-holder has never been kicked out of office.
Update, Nov. 2, 2010: This article has been updated throughout with new information on the midterm elections.
Correction, Nov. 2, 2010: This article originally misspelled Baron Hill's first name. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)