Reading the Election Night Tea Leaves

If you listen to the predictions about the midterm elections, you might think you were listening to The Weather Channel: it's going to be a tidal wave, a hurricane, an avalanche, a tsunami.

But how will you be able to tell what's actually happening on Election Night?

Well, for what it's worth (and you are watching for free), here's what I'll be looking for once the results start coming in.

Any Surprises in the East?

Let's begin with the Senate. Are there any surprises in the East that might give us early clues?

For instance, nearly all the polling says the Democrats will lose the Pennsylvania Senate seat. If Democrat Joe Sestak beats Republican Pat Toomey, it's an indication that a chunk of Obama's core voters - young, African-American - have turned out in significant numbers.

Similarly, the only Republican Senate seat where Democrats seem to have a chance for a pickup is in Kentucky. A loss there for Republican Rand Paul is a hint that the "Tea Party" insurgency may have turned off centrist voters.

If you're a Republican, you are watching West Virginia, hoping that the anti-Obama sentiment there will lead to the election of a Republican Senator for the first time in more than half a century. A GOP win here means a big step toward taking over the U.S. Senate.

A Midwest Wipeout?

The Midwest was fertile territory for Obama two years ago: He won in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. It's a very different picture now. There is a distinct possibly that Democrats will lose Senate seats in Indiana and Wisconsin, and the one to watch is the dead-even race in Illinois - the seat Obama held. A Republican capture here is another sign that the Senate could well tip.

Shootout in the West

Later on Election Night will come four Democratic Senate seats in the West, all held by Democrats and all more or less even.

Colorado has been a goldmine for Democrats in recent years. But appointed Senator Mike Bennett is in a tight race with Tea Party candidate Ken Buck.

Nevada's Harry Reid, the Majority Leader, is even at best with Tea Party heroine Sharon Angle.

Washington State Senator Patti Murray would be the odds-on favorite in an ordinary year. But in this unordinary year, the three-term incumbent is only slightly ahead of Dino Rossi.

And in California, Barbara Boxer, another "Year of the Woman" winner, is barely ahead of ex-Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.

Each of these Western states was blue, even deep blue, two and four years ago. Democratic losses here will tell you that there is indeed a national wave that is bringing Republican candidates to power.

Will Giants Fall?

It's a lot more difficult to track races of the House of Representatives. There are as many as one hundred competitive seats, so one way to see how big a "wave" is hitting is to look for veteran incumbents who may face trouble. And this year, we're talking only about Democrats.

So keep an eye on 30-year incumbent Barney Frank in Massachusetts; or Michigan's John Dingell, first elected when Eisenhower was President 55 years ago; or Missouri's Ike Skelton, a 34-year veteran; or South Carolina's John Spratt, who chairs the budget committee.

Governors in the Heartland

When it comes to governors, the lion's share of media attention will go to California, where ex-governor Jerry Brown is running against former eBay CEO Meg Whitman. But I'll be looking to the heartland.

Six states - Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa - all have Democratic governors. On Election Day, they could all go Republican.


Finally, almost every campaign produces a "who'da thunk it?" moment. Could a third-party candidate be elected governor in Colorado? Could a write-in candidate win a Senate seat in Alaska? Could California voters legalize marijuana? Could a late surge of Democratic voters knock all these pre-election certainties into a cocked hat?

I often root for that kind of night. It would be more proof that whoever called it "political science" had a fine sense of humor.