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A Comprehensive 2010 Election Guide

This is your comprehensive hour-by-hour guide to Election Night 2010. It will help you follow all of the bellwether indicators throughout the day and interpret the returns. So what are you waiting for? Print it out and keep it close during every minute of the agonizing countdown.

What to Look for Early on Election Day: There will be lots of anecdotal reports during the early hours of voting about turnout and the expectations* of both parties and many candidates. It’s colorful, but don’t believe any of it. Much of this chatter can be safely ignored as too unsystematic or, worse, as spin designed to suppress or motivate turnout. It’s also good to remain skeptical about charges of “voter fraud,” often peddled by Republicans in order to enrage the base and offset Democratic charges of voter intimidation and polling place chaos.

One distraction that generally won’t be available, at least in the East, is the type of early exit-poll rumor that was common before the 2008 election. The exit poll consortium of media outlets won’t get data until after 5:00 p.m. (all hours in this article are Eastern Daylight Time), and leaks prior to release time are becoming virtually extinct. In addition, exit polling is only being conducted in 26 states, and only of statewide races. So if anyone offers you exit poll data from VA-5 at 3:00 p.m., throw it in the nearest trash can.

Watch the weather. Early indications are that Election Day rain will be centered in the South, and some parts of the Northwest—but if the weather gets bad in other key swing areas, it can generally be assumed to benefit Republicans.

Beyond that, though, most of the day before early evening will be filled with tedium and hearsay.

The Late-Afternoon Rush: The first big hint of what’s to come will be at around 5:45 p.m., when media outlets begin reporting partial exit-poll data about the makeup of the electorate. These news organizations actually receive all the exit-poll data that is available around the country at 5:00 p.m., but they don’t use it to call races until polls close in the relevant states. Yet they are willing to report the non-candidate data from the exits earlier in the evening—and, if you read it right, that information can tell you a lot about who’s going to win. Here’s what to look for:

  • Partisan/ideological composition of the electorate: In terms of self-identification by voters, if Republicans outnumber independents, it will be a very good sign for the GOP. If voters are divided into Republicans and Democrats plus “leaners,” any plurality by Republicans will be significant. Similarly, if conservatives outnumber moderates, and/or if conservatives exceed 45 percent of the electorate, look for big GOP gains.
  • Age composition of the electorate: This is one of the most critical turnout variables. If 18-29 year-olds represent 10 percent of the electorate, Democrats are definitely going to pull some surprises. If, conversely, voters over 50 represent more than 60 percent of voters, this is probably an electorate that would have elected John McCain president two years ago, which is obviously a good sign for Republicans in close races, even in states carried by Obama.
  • Total turnout: Turnout for midterms is typically around 40 percent of eligible voters. Anything higher than that is probably a sign that Democratic turnout was better than expected.
  • Issues: Exit polls typically ask voters what issues were most important to voters. If “deficits,” “taxes,” “terrorism,” or “immigration” together amount to over what 20 percent of voters consider “most important,” it’s probably a very good sign for Republicans. “Jobs,” “the economy,” and “health care” are concerns shared by Dems and Republicans. And there’s always one question that asks whether voters would prefer a smaller government with less services or a larger government with more services. The small-government opinion almost always prevails (as it did in 2008), but any small-government number over 60 percent could be significant.
  • Right track/wrong track; anti-incumbency: These are data points you should approach with caution, since voters for both parties are likely to express strongly “wrong track” or “anti-incumbent” sentiments.

First Poll Closings, 6:00 p.m.: At this time, polls will close in most of Indiana (it’s by local option) and in Eastern Kentucky. The results will provide the first indication of how Americans are voting—and it will also set the tone for the night’s network coverage. (Networks generally don’t like to “call” statewide races until all polls are closed, but sometimes do if the results are very clear.) For example, the networks will probably call the Indiana Senate race for Republican Dan Coats right away, which would be the first GOP “takeover” of a Senate seat. An early call of the Kentucky Senate race for Republican Rand Paul, who has become a heavy favorite in the last two weeks, would portend something like a double-digit win for Paul, and it would begin the night’s first big batch of hype about the Tea Party movement.

There are three House bellwethers in Indiana and Kentucky that bear close watching: IN-9, a perennially marginal district, where Democrat Blue Dog Baron Hill is a slight underdog to Republican Todd Young; IN-2, where a Class of 2006 Blue Dog Democrat, Joe Donnelly, is in a very close race with Jackie Walorski; and Lexington-based KY-6, where still another Blue Dog Democrat, Ben Chandler, who took the seat away from the GOP in a 2004 special election, is in a tough race with Andy Barr. This contest will say something about whether a candidate who voted for climate-change legislation can survive in a coal-producing state. If the GOP sweeps these bellwether districts, the odds are very high Republicans will control the House and could well exceed the 54 seats won in 1994.

Second Poll Closings, 7:00 p.m.: At this time, polls will close in Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia, Vermont, and the Eastern Daylight Time portion of Florida. Two Senate races, in Vermont and Georgia, are non-competitive. In Florida, the networks are likely to go ahead and call the Senate race for Mario Rubio unless some last-minute switch of support from Kendrick Meek to Charlie Crist makes this contest closer than been looking during the past few weeks.

The most important gubernatorial race to watch during this hour is the Florida contest, which is a genuine national prize given its significance for redistricting and the 2012 election; it’s anybody’s race, with various polls showing either Democrat Alex Sink or Tea Party Republican Rick Scott winning. If Sink wins the governor’s race and Dems pull out at least two of the close Florida House races, it should be considered a pretty good night for Florida Democrats.

If Democrat Roy Barnes is looking highly competitive in the Georgia gubernatorial race (and keep in mind this is a state with a majority-vote requirement, so a runoff is possible) against Nathan Deal, it could be a good sign for vulnerable House Democrats there; a Barnes win would be another significant Democratic victory looking toward redistricting. There is also a very tight gubernatorial race in Vermont between Democrat Peter Shumlin and Republican Brian Dubie; if Shumlin wins, it won’t have huge national implications, but it would be one of several Democratic pickups of Republican gubernatorial seats which might mitigate the damage to Democrats’ dignity. In addition Nikki Haley is expected to defeat Vincent Sheheen for the South Carolina governorship, but as in Georgia, an upset is possible, since both Republicans are fighting ethics allegations and party divisions.

This cohort of states could potentially yield a rich harvest of House gains for the GOP. In Virginia, two freshman Democrats who won in tough territory during 2008 are in considerable trouble: Tom Perriello in the central-Southside 5th district, is expected to lose to Robert Hurt if the Republican wave is reasonably strong—though Perriello certainly exceeded expectations in 2008 (if Hurt loses, expect conservatives to turn against him for being too much of an “establishment” candidate). And Glenn Nye in the Hampton Roads-based 2nd district is a slight underdog to Republican Scott Rigell.

If the Republican wave is stronger than expected, it could envelop freshman Gerald Connolly from Northern Virginia, who’s needed late national financial help in a rematch against Keith Fimian; and perhaps longtime southwest Virginia Congressman Rick Boucher, who’s in a tough race against Morgan Griffith. (This is another race that will indicate the depth of coal- country antipathy for votes in favor of cap-and-trade.) But all of these races are close enough that Democrats could sweep them, which would be an early sign that the GOP wave is less than a tsunami.

Down in Florida, there are three Democrats who will probably fall if the GOP turnout advantage is as strong as expected. One is Blue Dog Alan Boyd from North Florida, who’s trailing Republican Steve Southerland in a Republican-tilting district (after surviving a tough primary). Two others are narrow 2008 winners, most famously the fiery progressive Alan Grayson, who’s benefitting from national grassroots financial support but is struggling in a marginally pro-GOP Orlando-area district against Daniel Webster. In the NASA-centric 24th district, Susan Kosmas, who supported the final health reform bill after voting against the House version, is a narrow underdog to Sandy Adams, whose anti-government rhetoric does not extend to the space program. The closest, and probably the most expensive, Florida House contest is a rematch between Class of 2006 Democrat Ron Klein and African American Tea Party ally Allen West in the highly marginal Palm Beach-Broward 22d district. Anything could happen here, but West is the slight favorite given the Republican tilt this year.

In Georgia, watch the central-south 8th district’s Jim Marshall, who is facing the latest in a series of tough opponents in Scott Austin, who abandoned a gubernatorial bid to make this race. (This is the most heavily Republican district represented by a Georgia Democrat.) Marshall is another Democrat who has almost always exceeded expectations. The southwest Georgia 2nd district’s Sanford Bishop, an African American Blue Dog, is facing the toughest race of his career against Mike Keown.

Third Poll Closings, 7:30: Only three states (West Virginia, North Carolina, and Ohio) are in this group, but they carry a lot of nationally important implications. First of all, if Democrat Joe Manchin wins the West Virginia Senate race over John Raese, as polls narrowly predict, GOP hopes of taking over the Senate would largely expire (they’d have to sweep the close races in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Colorado, Nevada, and Washington, and then pull an improbable upset in California or Connecticut). An early call of this race for Manchin would probably touch off the first Democratic celebrations of the night.

Another possible source of Democratic cheer in this group of states would be a win for Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, who’s been closing fast on Republican John Kasich, a longtime national conservative favorite. A Strickland win would carry implications for 2012 as well, given the must-win nature of this state in presidential campaigns. Rob Portman has opened up a prohibitive lead over Lee Fisher in the Ohio Senate race. And in North Carolina, no one much expects Democrat Elaine Marshall to win, but it would be a good sign for her party if she is running within single digits of Senator Richard Burr, who’s never been terribly popular.

On the House side, Ohio Republicans are reasonably confident of being able to knock off three Democratic freshmen. Two of them, Mary Jo Kilroy of the Columbus-based 15th district, and Steve Driehaus of the Cincinnati-based 1st district, are facing rematches with candidates (Steve Stivers in the 15th; Steve Chabot in the 1st) whom they narrowly beat in ‘08. Driehaus is one of the endangered Democrats who has equivocated about supporting Nancy Pelosi for speaker. A third freshman in the crosshairs is John Boccieri from the Canton-based 16th, a traditionally Republican district. If Republicans have a really good night, they think they can knock off two sophomore Blue Dogs from marginally pro-Republican districts in southeast Ohio: Charlie Wilson in the 6th and Zack Space in the 18th. Polls in these last two districts have been very close.

The Tar Heel State offers Republicans three, or maybe even four, House targets. Freshman Larry Kissell, who won the Charlotte-to-Fayetteville 8th district in an upset in 2008, is in a tight race against Republican Harold Johnson, who disposed of one of the zanier 2008 candidates, Tim D’Annunzio, in a primary and runoff. Two veteran Democrats seem to have gotten into late trouble. One, Bobby Etheridge of the central-east 2nd District, has been hurt by video footage of him appearing to bully a hostile questioner, and is now locked in a close race with “Mama Grizzly” Renee Ellmers. Another, Blue Dog Mike McIntyre, in the relatively pro-Republican southeastern North Carolina 7th district, has struggled to mobilize Democrats unhappy with his conservative voting record in his race against Republican Ilario Pantano. The GOP candidate achieved national notoriety after being accused of murder after his Marine Corps unit killed two unarmed detainees in Iraq (he was not prosecuted and wrote a book about his experiences). Polls of this race are very close.

A real danger sign for Democrats would be a loss for Heath Shuler, who is sometimes treated as the poster boy for Rahm Emanuel’s efforts to recruit conservative Democrats in the 2006 cycle. Shuler’s opponent in the western North Carolina 11th district, Jeff Miller, defeated a Tea Party-affiliated candidate in the primary, so the race is about party rather than ideology.

There’s also a bellwether House race in West Virginia that should track closely with the Senate race, in the 1st district (located in the northern part of the state) where conservative Democrat Michael Oliverio, who knocked off incumbent Alan Mohollan in a primary, is battling Republican David McKinley. This is a district that’s been trending heavily Republican in presidential elections and returns there may give some indication of the level of support commanded by Manchin.

Fourth Polling Closings: 8:00 p.m.: This is when the floodgates open, with polls closing in 17 states (AL, CT, DE, IL, ME, MD, MA, MI, MS, MO, NH, NJ, OK, PA, TN, TX, and the central time portion of SD). It will take a while to follow the crucial races, as the networks trudge through reporting the predictable outcomes of noncompetitive Senate and gubernatorial races. Expect a disproportionate expenditure of words over the preordained victory of Chris Coons versus Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, complete with talk about witches and masturbation, and (particularly if Joe Manchin has won in West Virginia) how Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Express destroyed Republican chances of winning the Senate by taking out Michael Castle. All this stuff is already in the can.

In this tranche, there are relatively few close statewide races to look at, barring upsets. Of some interest are Connecticut, where Democrat Richard Blumenthal appears to have survived his own missteps over his military record and weathered Linda McMahon's expenditure of $50 million in personal funds; New Hampshire, where Republican Kelly Ayotte, who barely got out of her primary, has had an easier time with Paul Hodes in a state trending sharply Republican this year; and in Missouri, where a once-tight race between Roy Blunt and Robin Carnahan seems to be following the Show-Me State’s conservative trend this year.

But the two Senate barnburners of the eight o’clock hour are in Pennsylvania and Illinois. In the Keystone State, Joe Sestak, who beat Arlen Specter with a late surge in the Democratic primary, has trailed Club for Growth chieftain Pat Toomey for months, but closed the gap in polls down the stretch. Some late polls show Toomey reestablishing a modest lead, and Sestak is battling a general pro-GOP mood in a state where the president and retiring Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell are not terribly popular with Democrats. The Democrats' big registration advantage in the state remains the main hope for Sestak.

In Illinois, Democrat Alexi Giannoulias and Republican Mark Kirk have been locked in a close race for months, with a persistently high undecided vote in this politically disgruntled state. The polls slightly tilt to Kirk, and aside from its importance in terms of overall party numbers in the Senate, much will be made about this being President Obama’s old seat. This is another race Republicans have to win to maintain any hopes of controlling the Senate. Illinois also features a close gubernatorial race between two candidates that voters don’t much seem to like, incumbent Democrat Pat Quinn and conservative Republican Bill Brady. Brady has led in the polls much of the way, but as in the Senate race, there’s a sizeable undecided/minor party vote.

In Connecticut, it's Republican Tom Foley who's been chasing Democrat Dan Malloy, but late polls indicate this gubernatorial seat will flip from R to D.

For all the relative lack of drama at 8:00 p.m. in the statewide races, the sheer number of states generates an awful lot of close House races to watch—many of which changed hands only recently in 2006 or 2008. These contests will go a long way toward determining the balance of the next Congress. Here's what's important:

These crucial battles include the Mississippi race between longtime conservative populist Democrat Gene Taylor, who represents the very heavily Republican district, has voted against his party routinely in recent years, and even announced he had voted for John McCain in 2008. He will probably define the limits of party disloyalty in pursuit of victory, but isn’t currently favored. Freshman Bobby Bright from southeastern Alabama has been given a pass to vote against his party on most controversial legislation, but is in a close race with Republican Martha Robey. Freshmen Kathy Dahlkemper of northeast Pennylvania’s 3d district, and Debbie Halvorson of northeast Illinois’ 11th district—both marginally partisan territory—are trailing their opponents in polls by sizable margins. Aside from Dahlkemper, Democrats endangered by Pennsylvania’s hostile-to-Democrats mood include two Class of 2006 members, Chris Carney of northeast Pennsylvania and Patrick Murphy of suburban Philly’s famous swing district, Bucks County, along with veteran Paul Kanjorski of northeast Pennsylvania. Wins by Democrats in any of these races should be counted as a mild upset.

Dead-even races that could turn either on local factors or state/national patterns include those involving two Illinois Members, Dr. Bill Foster, who has represented Denny Hastert’s old 14th district since winning a special election in 2008, and Phil Hare of the Western Illinois 17th district, who is yet another Class of 2006 winner. In Michigan’s 7th congressional district, which runs from Lansing to Battle Creek, a rematch of 2008 candidates Mark Schauer (the Democratic winner two years ago) and Tim Walberg appears very close (Michigan’s a state like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin where a deeply unpopular outgoing state administration is compounding Democratic problems). Also in this category is New Jersey’s 3d district, a very expensive race (candidates must buy media in both New York and Philadelphia) between freshman Democrat John Adler and former Eagles football player Jon Runyan. Over in Missouri, House Armed Service Committee chairman Ike Skelton of the central-west Missouri 4th district has survived the ever-increasing Republican bent of his district for many years, but is in an apparent dead heat against Christian Right activist Vicki Hartzler.

And races that could indicate a stronger-than-expected Republican national trend include Texas’s 23d district, where veteran Ciro Rodriguez is facing a tough challenge from “Young Gun” recruit Quico Canseco, a Hispanic candidate who supports Arizona’s immigration law. Another bellwether is New Hampshire’s open 2nd district (now represented by Senate candidate Paul Hodes), where Republican former Congressman Charlie Bass is locked in a close race against Ann Kuster.

If Republicans knock off Mark Critz, who won the hotly contested special election for the late John Murtha’s southeastern Pennsylvania 23d district, or break the Democratic monopoly on the Massachusetts House delegation by winning in the South Shore/Cape Cod 10th district, it's a sign that the night is will probably be very painful for Democrats indeed.

Yet this group of races does include two rare opportunities for Democrats to pick up a Republican seat: The Delaware at-large post vacated by Christine O’Donnell’s moderate primary opponent, Mike Castle (former Lt. Gov. John Carney is a fairly substantial favorite over Tea Party-oriented Glen Urqurhart), and in Mark Kirk’s Chicago-suburban 10th district of Illinois (Democrat Dan Seals is a mild favorite over Republican Robert Dold, who is seeking to revive the old Tom DeLay tradition of a GOP exterminator in the House).

Fifth Poll Closings: 8:30 p.m.: Arkansas has this time slot to itself. But its marquee statewide races lack all drama, with Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln doomed to lose against John Boozman dating back to well before her upset Democratic runoff win over Bill Halter, and Democratic Governor Mike Beebe cruising toward an easy victory over Mike Keet.

The state is interesting because it's one of the three states where John McCain ran ahead of George W. Bush’s 2004 performance, establishing a very clear trend toward overwhelming Republicanism that can be tested further by the outcome of the state's one relatively close House race, where Democrat Chad Causey and Republican Rick Crawford are battling over the northeast Arkansas district of retiring Democratic congressman Marion Berry. Crawford has led in the polls with a big undecided vote.

Sixth Poll Closings, 9:00 p.m.: Ten states (Colorado, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, and Wyoming) weigh in at this point.

If you believe the consensus of experts that Russ Feingold can’t beat Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, the Senate race to watch is the extraordinarily close race in Colorado, where incumbent Democrat Michael Bennet and Tea Party favorite Ken Buck have seesawed for the lead in late polls after close primary wins. Colorado is hard to read: It was a classic 2006-2008 Democratic surge state, but one where conservative excitement this year has been very high. Another complication is that all but a few major jurisdictions in Colorado shifted to an all-mail-ballot system this year; on the Pacific Coast, mail balloting seems to have helped Democrats by boosting overall turnout, but anecdotally Republicans seem to have done better here getting their partisans to mail in votes early on.

Competitive gubernatorial races remain in Rhode Island, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Colorado. In Rhode Island, a likely R to D transition was upset by the independent candidacy of former Senator Linc Chafee, who is now the probable winner (particularly after his quasi-endorsement by the White House). Democrat Mark Dayton is the probable winner of another three-way match (the old Jesse Ventura Independence Party still fields candidates there) in Minnesota. The Wisconsin tilt between Republican Scott Walker and Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett has been close, but the odds are the deep unpopularity of outgoing Governor Jim Doyle makes Walker the favorite. And in Colorado, one of the nation’s most insane races concludes with troubled Republican nominee Dan Maes fading into irrelevance, as famed immigrant-basher Tom Tancredo, running on the far-right Constitution Party ticket, will likely lose, though not by much, to Democrat John Hickenlooper.

Aside from easy open-seat pickups in Kansas, Louisiana, and the vacant 29th district of New York, likely Republican House gains in this group of states are concentrated in New York, Wisconsin, and Colorado. The “over-exposure” of 2006-2008 Democratic winners is very apparent in New York, where freshmen Scott Murphy and Bill Owens and sophomores John Hall and Michael Arcuri are all in very close races in highly marginal districts. Tim Bishop in suburban Suffolk County, who’s been around since 2002, is also in a race worth watching. In Wisconsin, Republicans think they have a bead on the retiring David Obey’s seat, and on sophomore Steve Kagan. If veteran Ron Kind looks to be losing, it’s a very bad sign for Democrats. Out in Colorado, no one will be surprised if freshman Betsy Markey loses, but it will be a bad night for Democrats if Earl Perlmutter and John Salazar go down. Democrats do expect to win back fluke 2008 winner Joseph Cao’s seat in Louisiana.

Seventh Poll Closings, 10:00 p.m.: Arizona, Idaho, Iowa, Montana, and Nevada weigh in at this hour. The only competitive Senate race is the Big One in Nevada, which is a bit of a caricature of the entire election cycle, with deeply unpopular Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid facing nutty Tea Party Republican Sharron Angle in a vastly expensive and nasty race. Angle has open up a tiny lead in late polls, but Democrats seem to have done well in early voting. The none-of-the-above option could prove popular.

There are no truly competitive gubernatorial races in this group; Republicans are expected to pick up a governorship in Iowa via former Governor Terry Branstad. But there’s lots of action in the House, particularly in Arizona, where Republicans think they can pick up a remarkable four seats. No one will be surprised if freshman Ann Kirkpatrick loses, but if Raul Grijalva or sophomore Gabbie Giffords goes down, it will be a bad night for Democrats. Democrats think they can avoid any losses in Iowa, but if Leonard Boswell, Dave Loebsback, or particularly Bruce Braley were to lose, it’s still another sign of a big Republican wave. Freshman Dana Titus looks to be in big trouble in Nevada.

A final note: Conservatives in Iowa are focused on denying another term to three Supreme Court justices who joined in the unanimous decision legalizing same-sex marriage. This will continue to be a big issue going into the 2012 Republican presidential caucuses, to the discomfort of some candidates.

Eighth Poll Closings, 11:00 p.m.: Here’s where the Pacific Coast states begin reporting; by now, we should probably know if Republicans are on track to retake the House, and whether there’s any hope of a Senate takeover. The first thing to understand is that both Oregon and Washington (with the exception of one county in the latter) have all-mail-ballot systems. Washington, moreover, allows ballots postmarked by Election Day to be counted, which means that very close races may not be resolved for days, perhaps weeks. Meanwhile, California allows voters to be permanently registered as mail-in voters, and receive ballots automatically; well over half of the 2010 votes there will probably be cast by mail.

Late polls indicate a relatively comfortable win for Barbara Boxer in California; if she looks to be in trouble against Carly Fiorina, all bets are off and Republicans might have a real shot at Senate control, even if they lose one of the close races elsewhere. It’s Washington that will probably hang fire; after a brief period in which Patty Murray seemed to be putting away veteran statewide candidate Dino Rossi, late polls have been very close.

The nation’s most expensive gubernatorial race, in California, seemed to have ended with a whimper rather than a bang, with Democrat Jerry Brown opening up a double-digit lead over Meg Whitman in late polls, despite, or perhaps even because of, her record-setting spending (which could reach about $170 million of her own funds). In Oregon’s much less noisy race, former Democratic Governor John Kitzhaber appears to have taken a late, narrow lead over former NBA player Chris Dudley.

In House races, Republicans expect to pick up one open Democratic seat in Washington, but if either Rick Larson or Adam Smith looks to be endangered, it’s yet another sign of a big Republican tide. Similarly, in Oregon, a defeat for freshman Blue Dog Kurt Schrader would not be a surprise, but if David Wu or Peter DeFazio is in trouble, so is the Democratic Party. In California, two Democratic House seats, held by Jerry McNerny and Blue Dog Jim Costa, are thought to be vulnerable, but alarm bells will go off if Loretta Sanchez loses. And given the apparent late Democratic tide in California, there’s a chance Republican Dan Lungren could go down.

As always, California’s ballot initiatives will receive national attention, particularly Prop. 19, which would legalize consumption and small-scale growing and sales of marijuana, and Prop. 23, a conservative measure to suspend the state’s landmark carbon emissions control law. The latter is likely to lose decisively, and the former has been trailing in late polls, though there is a theory that pot aficionados may not be willing to tell pollsters how they actually intend to vote.

Final Poll Closings, Midnight: The 49th and 50th states close their polls while the day is officially concluding elsewhere, and the big question is whether Alaska voters will express their eccentricity by denying Republican Senate nominee Joe Miller a victory. Some polls show Miller still holding a healthy lead, while others show spurned incumbent Lisa Murkowski winning as a write-in candidate; they all have Democrat Scott McAdams lurking in a reasonably close third place. If Murkowski is competitive, the count could take weeks, and will probably generate all sorts of challenges to scrawled write-in votes for a candidate whose last name is not the easiest to spell. If initial returns show a close three-way race, expect foggy late-night pundits to rouse themselves with more speculation about the destructive role of Sarah Palin.

The Aloha State could end the proceedings with a ray of sunshine for Democrats, since former congressman Neil Abercrombie is a narrow favorite to retake the governorship against Lt. Gov. Duke Aoina, and Colleen Hanabusa is an equally narrow favorite to take back Abercrombie’s old House seat from special election winner Charles Djou.

The Post-Election Waltz: A campaign's work is never done (nor is a pundit's). Depending on how narrowly the battles for control of the House and Senate turn out, the post-election period will be devoted to some mixture partisan spin and nail-biting anticipation of the final vote tallies. Keep an eye out for the two old political standbys: Fanatical Republican triumphalism, bordering on hubris, and the post-election Struggle for the Soul of the Democratic Party, a biennial self-flagellation ritual that will begin almost immediately if Democrats lose the House.

It could also be a night of reckoning for pollsters, whose final assessments of the Democratic-Republican balance in House votes have been unusually diverse. You can certainly bet that Gallup, whose usually authoritative final generic ballot numbers are something of an outlier (showing a 15 percent advantage for the GOP in a normal-turnout scenario), and Rasmussen, whose ubiquitous state polling has been pointing towards a Republican landslide all year, would appreciate a big GOP night to vindicate their predictions. And most of all, watch the potential presidential candidates: The morning after begins the election of 2012.

*A note on terminology: When I refer to particular information as better or worse than expected for Democrats, it should be judged against the current conventional wisdom about what’s likely to happen. The consensus of expert opinion is that Republicans will narrowly win the House and narrowly miss control of the Senate, and will at the end of the evening control about three-fifths of the nation’s governorships.