A veteran observer's guide to Election Night

Frustrated by Washington state's delayed vote-counting system? Here are some nationwide signs to watch for tonight; they could help predict outcomes here at home.

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Frustrated by Washington state's delayed vote-counting system? Here are some nationwide signs to watch for tonight; they could help predict outcomes here at home.

We'll know who won most Senate and House races in the rest of the country long before we know who won here. Remember, only 60 percent of Washington's votes will be tallied by tonight (Nov. 2). Most counties will report their numbers only once, with Snohomish and Pierce possibly making two reports.

But we may have an idea what's going to happen here because of what happens everywhere else. Here are some hints.

Let's start with the House. There are three magic numbers to keep in mind for election night: 39, 52, and 71.

Thirty-nine is the number of seats Republicans must take from incumbent or retiring Democrats to win control of the House of Representatives. Almost all pollsters and election analysts predict a Republican gain of more than 40 seats this year.

Fifty-two was the number of seats the Republicans won in the "Gingrich revolution" of 1994.

Seventy-one is the largest number of House seats ever won in the last century. It happened when the country grew weary of the New Deal back in 1938. (Ironically, the American people re-elected FDR two years later, just as they did Bill Clinton two years after the Republicans took the House in '94).

So tonight, if Republicans are winning in the neighborhood of 40 to 45 seats, it likely means a tight contest for Washington's open 3rd Congressional District, being vacated by Brian Baird and contested by Republican Jaime Herrera and Democrat Denny Heck. It also likely means a competitive race between Dave Reichert and challenger Suzan DelBene in the suburban 8th District of east King County.

If the Rs are on pace to win 50 or more seats, then Reichert will likely win easily, and Herrera will take the 3rd. It also puts another seat in play: the 2nd, which runs from Mukilteo up north to the Canadian border. The winds are blowing against incumbent Democrat Rick Larsen in the direction of Republican Snohomish County Councilman John Koster.

If the Rs are rolling toward 60 seats or more, we're beyond a tidal wave and running toward a historic tsunami. In that event, keep an eye on Pierce County's 9th District, where an increasingly concerned incumbent Democrat, Adam Smith, has been running commercials against his lightly funded opponent, Republican Pierce County Councilman Dick Muri.

Let's head to the Senate.

There are two reasons why Patty Murray should be feeling good. First, she polls better than most of the Democrats elsewhere who are in trouble. Second, while the polling trendline isn't headed in her direction, we have early voting in Washington, and 40 percent of the voters cast their ballots before this past weekend, according to the Secretary of State's Office.

Here's why Dino Rossi should be feeling good: Six of the seven last polls show Patty Murray under 50 percent. They also show Rossi slowly gaining support to the point of pulling even or pulling ahead. In short, he is peaking at just the right time — the question is how early voting by mail affects this trend.

Murray called in favors from every major player in D.C. in October: The president was here twice; the vice president was here twice; Bill Clinton swung by; so did Michelle Obama and Jill Biden. All those appearances did not move Murray's numbers north, but they may have inspired more Democrats to vote. A Republican wave may not sweep Rossi in, but a tidal wave will.

To spot how high the wall of water will be this evening, keep in mind there are currently 41 Republicans, 57 Democrats, and two independents (Bernie Sanders from Vermont and Joe Lieberman from Connecticut, both of whom caucus with the Democrats). The Rs need 10 seats to win. They're sure to win three: Indiana, North Dakota, and Arkansas. Here are the other races to watch:

  • Wisconsin: Democrat Russ Feingold entered the Senate the same year as Patty Murray, and like her, he is facing the toughest fight of his political life, against Republican businessman Ron Johnson. If Feingold wins in a depressed Midwestern state like Wisconsin, then Murray is probably safe.
  • Illinois: Moderate Republican Mark Kirk is facing Democratic State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (“Jee-ann-noo-lie-us”).  A thoroughly nasty race for Barack Obama’s Senate seat. If Kirk wins in blue-state Illinois, it’s a sign that the anti-Democrat wave is riding high.
  • Pennsylvania: Two years ago, Republican Sen. Rick Santorum was drummed out of office by more than a dozen points. This year, conservative Congressman Pat Toomey, a Tea Party favorite, may beat liberal Congressman Joe Sistek for the seat being vacated by Arlen Specter, who was vanquished in the Democratic primary after switching parties last year. If that happens, it’s another sign that voter sentiment has completely flipped in less than two years.
  • West Virginia: Popular Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin is running to the right of most Republican candidates throughout the country, including an ad showing him hoisting a rifle and firing a bullet through the Cap and Trade bill. If he defeats Republican businessman John Raese (“Racy”), it means Republicans' hopes of taking the Senate are all but shot. But if he wins, the chamber is in play and may get down to Washington state.
  • Colorado: Conservative attorney Ken Buck is neck-and-neck with Democrat Michael Bennett, who was appointed to fill out Ken Salazar’s term when he joined the Obama cabinet.  
  • Nevada: Senate majority leader Harry Reid managed to get an opponent who is almost as unpopular as he is, state legislator Sharon Angle. But she’s ahead in every poll, and Reid is stuck in the mid-40s, which is not where an incumbent wants to be in a year like this one.

The toughest one-on-one contest for Republicans is in California, where Carly Fiorina is trying to take out another Democrat from the class of '92, Barbara Boxer. Odds give the race in the heavily blue state to Boxer, but if Fiorina runs ahead of her, it is a sign that the Republican wave is even washing over Blue States out West.

Finally, America’s  wild-card, Alaska. Big-spending Republican Lisa Murkowski was dumped in the primary by Tea Party favorite Joe Miller. Murkowski has launched a write-in campaign and polls show her ahead of both Miller and Democrat Scott McAdams, who had been running third, but who is benefiting from all the recent bedlam. If he wins, it would be a net gain — maybe the only one all night — for the Democrats.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Carlson

John Carlson

John Carlson is a contributing columnist covering politics in Seattle and Washington state.