A Viewer's Guide to Election Night

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Charlie Litchfield / AP

Voters cast their ballots in the general election on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010 in Star, Idaho.

After two years of polls and punditry, more than $4 billion spent and a dizzying amount of spin, a new political landscape will take shape Tuesday night, Nov. 2. Nearly 500 House and Senate seats, 37 governorships and the vast majority of the 7,382 statehouse seats across the U.S. are in play, and if Republican gains are anything less than seismic, most political handicappers should be forking over their analyst badges Wednesday morning. Republicans need 39 seats to reclaim the House, a feat forecasters say they should manage with room to spare. With a few upsets, the party also has an outside shot at the Senate. As returns start pouring in this evening, it's worth keeping an eye on a series of races that will help shed light on the new congressional chessboard.

At 6 p.m. E.T., the first polls will close in parts of Indiana and Kentucky, and the outcome of the race between Democratic incumbent Baron Hill and Republican Todd Young in the Hoosier State's 9th Congressional District will be an early sign of how deep the GOP groundswell may go. Hill is a moderate who lost his seat in this conservative district in 2004 but retook it two years later. (In 2008, the district went for John McCain for President.) If Hill can fend off a tough challenge, it augurs well for Democratic hopes. Conversely, if Democrat Joe Donnelly, a second-term Blue Dog who has led in the polls, drops Indiana's 2nd District to Jackie Walorski, a Sarah Palin–endorsed "mama grizzly," the party should be in for a long night. Around this time, the Tea Party should be booking its first major triumph, with Republican Rand Paul expected to coast past Democrat Jack Conway in the race for Kentucky's open Senate seat.

An hour later, polls close in a series of Southern states — South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia and parts of Florida — where Republicans are keen on burying the last vestiges of a dying species, the conservative Southern Democrat. Among the possible victims are mainstays like Jim Marshall and Sanford Bishop in Georgia and John Spratt in South Carolina. (In the 8 p.m. wave of polls, Alabama freshman Bobby Bright and Mississippi's Gene Taylor — both of whom tried to save their jobs by distancing themselves from Democratic leadership — are on the chopping block as well.) Virginia freshmen like Glenn Nye and Tom Perriello, who rode President Obama's coattails to victory in conservative-leaning districts, are facing tough re-election fights. Perriello's fate in particular is a litmus test of whether Democrats in unfriendly regions will be thrown out for supporting the pillars of the party's legislative agenda. If Democrat Gerry Connolly is unable to stave off Republican Keith Fimian in Virginia's 11th District — a suburban Washington enclave that ranks as the wealthiest district in the nation — it would be a positive harbinger for Republicans. The race has seen an influx of interest-group cash in the closing weeks of the campaign, when it became apparent that the anti-Democratic tide had put it in play.

In addition to the South, Democrats are expected to sustain heavy setbacks in the Midwest, and several races in Ohio and West Virginia, where polls close at 7:30 p.m., will bear this theory out. If Democratic governor Joe Manchin loses the Senate campaign in the Mountain State, it would signal that anger toward the party runs deep enough to wash away the most popular native sons. In the Buckeye State, which is likely to lose two seats in the coming redistricting, freshman Democrats like Steve Driehaus in the 1st District, Mary Jo Kilroy in the 15th and John Boccieri in the 16th are expected to fall. Republican Rob Portman is expected to easily win his Senate race, and John Kasich could unseat Democratic governor Ted Strickland. If Republicans are in for a historic night, they could even dislodge liberal stalwarts like Dennis Kucinich in Ohio's 10th District (or Barney Frank of Massachusetts). Should Democrats limit their losses in tough parts of a pivotal swing state, the damage nationwide will probably be less extensive than forecast.

After 8 p.m., when polls close in 19 states — including bellwethers Pennsylvania and New Hampshire — the shape of the House will come into clearer focus. Venerable Democratic incumbents like Paul Kanjorski of Pennsylvania's 11th District and Ike Skelton of Missouri's 4th District are embroiled in tough battles against Tea Party–backed challengers, and Pennsylvania Democrats Patrick Murphy and Chris Carney are also vulnerable despite the party's edge in registered voters. On the Senate side, Democratic nominee Joe Sestak is nipping at the heels of Republican Pat Toomey, former head of the conservative Club for Growth. A Sestak win would go a long way toward ensuring the party's control of the upper chamber. Returns will also start filtering in at this time for the Illinois Senate seat formerly held by President Obama and the Connecticut Senate tussle between former WWE chief Linda McMahon and attorney general Richard Blumenthal. Blumenthal, the Democrat, is expected to take the seat vacated by outgoing Senator Chris Dodd.

The true Senate nail-biters, however, are in Nevada, where polls close at 9 p.m. E.T., and Colorado, where they close an hour later. In both Western states, Tea Party insurgents are salivating at the prospect of claiming significant scalps. If Senate majority leader Harry Reid falls to Republican Sharron Angle, who could prevail despite a disastrous campaign, it would demonstrate the depth of voter frustration at Democratic leadership. Colorado's Democratic Senator, Michael Bennet, is locked in a dogfight with another Tea Party–backed insurgent, Ken Buck. On the House side, Democrats like Harry Mitchell and Raul Grijalva in Arizona's 5th and 7th Districts, Betsy Markey in Colorado's 4th District, Minnesota's James Oberstar, and Steve Kagen in Wisconsin's 8th District could all lose their seats if a Republican wave materializes. In Wisconsin's Senate race, iconoclastic Democratic incumbent Russ Feingold looks likely to be unseated by Ron Johnson, a businessman and political neophyte who has campaigned on conservative platitudes. Another Democrat susceptible largely because of his party affiliation is Idaho's Walt Minnick, a Blue Dog whose votes against health care reform and the stimulus made him the only House Democrat to receive an endorsement from a Tea Party group. The problem? Minnick represents one of the reddest districts in the nation. If he loses, it will be because of his party association with Nancy Pelosi, not his voting record.

For the Democrats, California and the Pacific Northwest may be the safest parts of the electoral map — and even there, they could lose a series of House seats. But Senate incumbents Patty Murray and Barbara Boxer hold slim leads, while two-time former governors Jerry Brown in California and John Kitzhaber in Oregon are bidding to reclaim their old jobs. Victories in those contests would cushion the end of a long night. But the agony may not be over. The tightening three-way race in Alaska between Republican Joe Miller, Democrat Scott McAdams and incumbent Senator Lisa Murkowski (who lost the GOP primary to Miller) has the potential to stretch out for weeks as officials tally ballots to determine whether Murkowski's independent write-in campaign proved successful. If the election lives up to Republicans' wildest fantasies, there is an outside shot the Senate could be hanging in the balance — in which case they'd surely savor the wait.