What Clues to Watch for Early on Election Night

Posted November 1, 2004 at 4:51pm

Tonight, media outlets will be consumed by the presidential election, breathlessly searching for trends to report.

As a consequence, keeping up with the race for control of the Senate and House will require a little patience.

But just as early presidential results often offer clues to the ultimate outcome (“As X Goes, So Goes the Nation”), early House and Senate numbers could also be telling.

“Early on we’ll have a sense of what’s happening, especially in races with vulnerable incumbents,” said Greg Speed, communications director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Polls close the earliest in two states that take in both the Eastern and Central time zones: Indiana and Kentucky. So shortly after 7 p.m. in the East, we may know whether Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) has survived some final-month stumbles and withstood the late rush by his Democratic challenger, state Sen. Dan Mongiardo.

The final weeks of the Bluegrass State Senate race have been so bizarre — punctuated by whispers that Bunning is no longer fit for office and that Mongiardo is gay — that the result probably won’t say much about national trends. But it will at least strengthen (or weaken) Democrats’ long-shot hopes of taking back the Senate.

House races in those neighboring states are also worth watching. Three-term Rep. Baron Hill (D-Ind.) is facing a tough rematch with trucking executive Mike Sodrel (R), whom he defeated by 5 points in 2002. Democrats hold out hope that former Boston Celtics scout Jon Jennings (D) can knock off Rep. John Hostettler (R) in Indiana’s “Bloody 8th.” And in Kentucky’s 4th district, the open-seat race between former TV commentator Nick Clooney (D) and businessman Geoff Davis (R) appears to be a true tossup.

All politics is local, but if any sort of trend develops in these three races — especially if Jennings pulls an upset — something may be happening out there.

A Hill loss would be troubling to Democrats. On the other hand, if Clooney wins the race to replace retiring Rep. Ken Lucas (D), Democrats will be ecstatic — but it could be an anomaly. Although it is a Republican district — George W. Bush took 61 percent of the vote there in 2000 — the media-savvy Clooney has proved to be a stronger campaigner than Davis, who lost to Lucas in 2002.

Polls close in the Northern Kentucky 4th district at 6 p.m. Eastern time, so it could be the first competitive House race to report results.

But Carl Forti, communications director at the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Connecticut is the place House Republicans will be nervously watching early. There, two Republican incumbents — Reps. Christopher Shays and Rob Simmons — are in some trouble, largely due to the strong Democratic turnout anticipated for the White House vote.

If one or both of them lose, it could portend a long night for the GOP. But then again, the Nutmeg State is expected to vote so overwhelmingly for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in the presidential contest that it, too, could prove to be an anomaly.

“We’re going to watch our incumbents and see how they do and then we’ll be watching for the open seats — starting on the East Coast and moving west,” Forti said.

Other potentially significant early contests are in Georgia’s 12th district, where polls close at 7 p.m. EST, and in Virginia’s open-seat 2nd district, where voting also ends at 7 p.m.

In Georgia, freshman Rep. Max Burns has been considered the most vulnerable House Republican for most of the cycle, but Athens-Clarke County Commissioner John Barrow (D) has struggled to put the race away.

Republicans are slightly favored in the late-breaking battle to replace Rep. Ed Schrock (R) in Virginia’s Tidewater area, but a victory there for Democrat David Ashe would provide a boost for the minority party.

Democrats also have high hopes of knocking off Reps. Phil Crane (Ill.) and Heather Wilson (N.M.). Polls close at 8 p.m. EST in the Land of Lincoln and at 9 p.m. EST in the Land of Enchantment.

The fate of the “Texas Five” — the Democratic Members targeted for extinction by the GOP’s re-redistricting — won’t be known until after 8 p.m. Eastern time, when polls close in the Lone Star State. (A portion of West Texas is in the Mountain Time Zone, meaning polls there won’t close until 9 p.m. in the East, but none of the hottest races is there.)

Whatever trends the early House results reveal, control of the chamber is not expected to flip in the 109th Congress. Control of the Senate, however, is a much more open question.

After Kentucky, heading from East to West, poll closing times in the states with the most competitive Senate races are: 7 p.m. EST (South Carolina); 7:30 p.m. EST (North Carolina); 8 p.m. EST (Florida, which is split between two time zones, and Oklahoma); 9 p.m. EST (Colorado, Louisiana and South Dakota); and, finally, 1 a.m. EST Wednesday (Alaska).

Some of these races are so close that the final results may not be known until much, much later.