Anybody who is dying to know, at the earliest possible moment tonight, whether the Democrats are actually going to win something significant (or whether they ought to be consigned to the ashbin of history, along with the Whigs) would be well advised to consult a handy tip sheet of bellwether House and Senate races. Troll through the newspapers and cyberspace long enough, and you’ll find all kinds of advice on the best campaign indicators.
I have come up with my own likely bellwethers. It’s not nearly as comprehensive as some of the others out there, but, in the interests of personal sanity, this is my list and I’m sticking to it.
First, regarding the fight for control of the Senate: This is the potentially the easier task. The Democrats can’t win this chamber unless they essentially run the table, by defeating six Republican incumbents while successfully hanging on to virtually all of their own existing seats. Therefore, to best chart the Democrats’ fortunes on the Senate side, I plan to keep a close watch on one seat they are trying to defend.
Watch Maryland, in other words. The Republican candidate, Michael Steele, has been running a strong race in a heavily blue state. Steele, who is black, has been buoyed in recent days by support from influential members of the state’s African-American political establishment. And his opponent, Democrat Ben Cardin (who is seeking to move up from the House) is not an inspiring campaigner. If Steele pulls off an upset here – and this is possible – Democrats might as well say goodbye to their dreams of a Senate majority, because it would then mean they need to knock off seven GOPers.
And, speaking of knockoff targets, watch Rhode Island. Defeating Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee is essential to the Democrats’ national hopes, and this task seemed to be a slam dunk a few weeks ago, particularly since Chafee’s party leader, President Bush, is more unpopular in deep-blue Rhode Island than anywhere else in the land. But Chafee, who is personally popular, and is recognized statewide as no mere Bush rubber stamp, has reportedly closed the gap. If he survives tonight, that’s another major blow to Democratic majority dreams.
And watch Virginia, where the polls close early, at 7 p.m. Democrats need to defeat incumbent Republican George Allen, and for that they will need a massive turnout in the populous (and increasingly Democratic-trending) suburbs of Washington. If the Democrats come within sight of winning the Senate, their hopes will ultimately hinge on the results in Virginia, Missouri, and Tennessee. They will need to take two out of three. Tennessee appears to be the toughest (will Tennesseans really elect the first black senator from the Old South since the Reconstruction era, 130 years ago? I doubt it), so also watch Missouri, where Republican incumbent Jim Talent is imperiled in part because his staunch opposition to advanced stem cell research has turned off a lot of science-friendly suburbanites.
All told, here’s the potential road map for Democratic Senate victory: Hold every existing seat, and defeat GOP incumbents in Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Virginia. Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania and Mike DeWine in Ohio are deemed to be toast, but the overall Democratic hit list still seems like a tall order to me.
On the House side, I list 10 races that could signal whether the Democrats will (a) take the chamber at all (because I make absolutely no assumptions), and (b) win the chamber so decisively that it can safely be said that the election constituted a national rebuke of Bush and his performance in Iraq. Democrats are clearly gunning for (b), but, given their track record of disappointments, they would probably settle for (a) and try to spin it as (b).
At minimum, the Democrats need a net gain of 15 seats. But before I list my 10 pet bellwethers, I would advise everybody to start the night by watching Indiana.
This traditionally red state finishes voting at 7 p.m. EST, so we may see results there before anywhere else. And Indiana features three imperiled Republican House incumbents: Mark Souder, John Hostettler, and Mike Sodrel. In good years, all three have been buoyed by having a popular president leading the charge. Not so this year; at last check Hostettler was down by seven point in the polls, and Sodrel was down by five. If all three of those guys, or even two out of three, wind up biting the dust, then it could portend a good night nationally for the Democrats. (Ditto Kentucky, where the polls also close early. If Democrats can take out one of three imperiled GOP incumbents, that would be a bonus.)
Indiana and Kentucky aside, here’s my alphabetical top 10:
Arizona, 5th district. There are reliable reports that Republican incumbent J. D. Hayworth, an anti-immigrant conservative and national talk-show regular, is in deep trouble; apparently he has some ethics baggage, due to some ties to disgraced GOP superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, but, more importantly, his seal-the-border rhetoric has not been the clincher that everybody expected. And Latinos, a growing electoral force, are unhappy with him. If Hayworth loses, that’s probably one symptom of a major Democratic wave.
Colorado, 7th district. If Democrat Ed Perlmutter wins this traditionally Republican seat in the Denver suburbs, it would demonstrate that the Democrats are making inroads in the interior West, which has been inhospitable to the party for decades. This district has been changing rapidly; independent voters are flooding in, and, reportedly, a lot of Republican voters this year are fed up with the Iraq war. If Perlmutter loses, it’s another potential indicator of a bad Democratic night.
Connecticut, 2nd district. This state also features three imperiled Republicans – Chris Shays, Nancy Johnson, and Rob Simmons – but the 2nd district’s Simmons, who represents the eastern side of the state, has generally been viewed as being in the best shape, particularly because he has always brought home the bacon to the defense industries in his district. But can even a likeable Republican, running in a heavily Democratic district, survive a potential wave? If the Democrats are going to score big tonight, they will need to defeat people like Simmons and thus solidify their growing dominance in the Northeast.
Florida, 22nd district. Republican incumbent Clay Shaw has held the seat for 13 terms. But plenty of seniors are reportedly upset about some of the key provisions of the GOP-enacted Medicare drug prescription plan, and there is plenty of anger over the Iraq war in this district – where voters favored John Kerry over Bush in the 2004 election.
New Hampshire, 2nd district. Republican incumbent Charlie Bass has become more imperiled with each passing day, according to state pollsters. There’s nothing particularly wrong with Bass, politically, except for the fact that he shares the same party affiliation with the broadly unpopular Bush. If Bass goes down, that would be symptomatic of a pro-Democratic national wave.
New York, 26th district. The upper Empire State is normally strong GOP turf, but this seat in Buffalo currently belongs to one of the GOP congressional leaders who missed the obvious warning signs about the predatory Mark Foley. If incumbent Tom Reynolds loses his seat as a result of voter disgust, the national symbolism would be obvious.
North Carolina, 11th district. If the Democrats are going to gain a seat anywhere in the Old South, it will be here in the mountains on the western side of the state. This race is a virtual laboratory for the Democratic strategy of recruiting candidates who can fit the district. Hence, they came up with ex-NFL quarterback Heath Shuler, who is pro-gun and anti-abortion, and runs TV ads about his “mountain values.” There can be no big national Democratic wave unless they can defeat GOP incumbent Charles Taylor, who has been trying (in vain, according to the polls) to link Shuler to the national Democratic party’s alleged “homosexual agenda.”
Ohio, 15th district. The polls in this key state, as well as the polls in North Carolina, close at 7:30 pm EST, so these might provide more early readings. The GOP incumbent in Ohio’s 15th is Deborah Pryce, a prominent player in the House leadership, and her seat is imperiled, again, largely because of the seemingly pro-Democratic mood. It’s not just about Iraq, though. Ohio Republicans have been demoralized for several years by widespread corruption in the state government under their control. (Pryce holds one of three imperiled Republican seats in Ohio. If the Democrats sweep all three, that's 20 percent of the seats they need to take the House.)
Pennsylvania, 8th district. I could have singled out a number of races in Pennsylvania, another northeastern state where the Democrats absolutely need to make gains – and appear poised to do so. (And no wonder: GOP incumbent Curt Weldon's defense is, "The FBI investigation against me is really a liberal conspiracy," and GOP incumbent Don Sherwood's defense is, "I did not try to strangle my mistress.")
But the 8th district race in the Philadelphia suburbs is well worth watching, because Republican incumbent Mike Fitzpatrick seems to be in the best shape to survive. He separated himself early from Bush, stressing his independence by running TV ads about a new course in Iraq, and he seems to have gained some traction by painting his Democratic challenger as a novice carpetbagger with no firm stance on Iraq. But if Fitzgerald loses anyway, that also portends a strong Democratic wave.
Virginia, 2nd district. A freshman incumbent Republican, Velma Drake, who supports the Iraq war and off-shore oil drilling, is being seriously threatened, even in a heavily-Republican enclave centered around Virginia Beach. She’s depending on a big turnout from the religious conservatives who like her opposition to gay marriage and federal stem-cell research. This race could be a key test of the Christian right’s enthusiasm level. A Drake loss would also portend a Democratic wave.
Lastly, here’s another potential indicator: If the Democrats get through the night without losing any of their House and Senate incumbents, that too would signify a national wave (just as the GOP caught its own wave in 1994, when not a single Republican incumbent was defeated). On the other hand, if the Democrats cough it up tonight big time, suicide counselors will be standing by. And those despairers who decide to live another day might well feel compelled to console themselves with this little holiday item.
Of course, I reserve the right to tear up this list and start over if election night becomes totally unpredictable. I am going to attempt some live blogging; the rest of the time, I will be in the studio at WHYY in Philadelphia (Channel 12), helping with live TV commentary between 9 p.m. and midnight. Other guests will share the burden.