Early returns in Tuesday’s midterm elections should offer hints of what’s to come, the first whiff of whether Democrats can seize the House and possibly the Senate.
Most of the heavily contested, down-to-the-wire races are east of the Mississippi River, in states with relatively early poll closing times. If a Democratic rout is going to happen, it will be clear from the first votes.
Showdown contests in Virginia, Rhode Island and New Jersey should be harbingers of trends in the Senate. House races in Indiana, Kentucky and Florida will provide election-watchers initial clues as to which party will control that chamber.
President Bush and his chief political strategist, Karl Rove, insist Republicans will buck historical trends, overcome opposition to the Iraq war and retain their majority in both the House and the Senate. Democrats suggest an anti-Republican wave will sweep across the nation.
Early returns might telegraph who is right, and whether it will be a short night or a long one.
All 435 House seats and 33 of the Senate’s 100 seats will be filled. But many incumbents of both parties are either running unopposed or have token opposition, and so the contest for control of Congress boils down to a few dozen competitive races.
In the House, Democrats need to pick up 15 seats to regain the control they lost in the 1994 Republican Revolution that made Newt Gingrich the House speaker. Democrats need to gain six seats to retake control of the Senate, which they last ruled in 2002.
The earliest indication of a Senate trend may be seen in Virginia, where polls close at 7 p.m. EST, and where Republican incumbent George Allen, once expected to be easily re-elected, faces a tough challenge from Republican-turned-Democrat James Webb, an author and former Navy secretary in the Reagan administration.
“We’re going to know a lot by just knowing Virginia,” said Bernadette Budde, political analyst at BIPAC, a pro-business political group. “Virginia is an extreme bellwether. If Allen loses, then I don’t see how it can be better than 50-50 for Republicans.”
Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island and Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez in New Jersey are also in tight races whose outcome could plenty about the overall results.
Democrats figure they can win Pennsylvania and Ohio, two states with incumbent Republican senators. Tennessee is another now-GOP Senate seat that Democrats hope to win. Polls showed it competitive up to the election.
Moving west, Missouri and Montana were still in play in Senate contests, both with threatened GOP incumbents. Democrats also argue they have a shot at knocking off a GOP incumbent in Arizona.
In the House, the first indication of trouble for Republicans could come with the final poll closings at 7 p.m. Ã¢â‚¬â€ in Indiana and Kentucky. Democrats fielded moderate candidates to challenge GOP incumbents in districts in the conservative Ohio River Valley.
It could be a sign of a long night for the GOP if Democrats knock off Reps. John Hostettler, Chris Chocola and Mike Sodrel in Indiana, and Ron Lewis, Anne Northup and Geoff Davis in Kentucky.
Should Democrats win in these GOP-friendly districts, it’s conceivable that later in the evening they also will win clusters of seats in the liberal-leaning Northeast that are held by moderate Republicans.
Those include: GOP Reps. Nancy Johnson, Christopher Shays and Rob Simmons in Connecticut, as well as Mike Fitzpatrick, Curt Weldon, Jim Gerlach, Don Sherwood and Melissa Hart in Pennsylvania.
Some analysts prefer to look at returns in Florida, which has 25 House members, 18 of them currently held by Republicans and seven by Democrats.
The fate of the GOP seat held by disgraced former Rep. Mark Foley could give an early indication of the impact of the cybersex scandal on Republicans in general.
Also being closely watched: the Florida West coast seat of Republican Rep. Katherine Harris, who is widely expected to lose in her bid for the Senate.
The results from Georgia, where polls also close at 7 p.m., could give Republicans reason to be optimistic. They’ve made a play for two seats held by Democratic Reps. Jim Marshall and John Barrow. If Republicans win those seats, the Democrats’ math gets more complicated.
Most polls showed Democrats had a better chance of winning control of the House than the Senate, and early returns on Tuesday night might bear this out.
“We have never said we’re going to take control of the Senate. We have said we’re on the edge,” Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Monday.
Associated Press Writer Liz Sidoti contributed to this report.