Scenarios: Election trends could be evident early
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The battle for control of the Congress on Tuesday promises to stretch deep into the night or beyond, but some of the earliest results could give big clues about the eventual outcome.
For Republicans to win a majority in the House of Representatives and make big gains in the Senate as expected, they must capture dozens of endangered Democratic seats in the Northeast and Midwest where polls are the first to close.
The size of the projected Republican victory could become evident early in House battlegrounds in Indiana, Kentucky, Virginia, Florida, Georgia and Ohio.
In the Senate, showdowns for toss-up Democratic-held seats in West Virginia and Pennsylvania could give the first signs of whether Republicans can win the half-dozen toss-up races they need to claim a majority.
Republicans must gain 39 House seats and 10 Senate seats to control each chamber. All 435 House seats and 37 of the 100 Senate seats are up for grabs on Tuesday.
The actual vote counts could take hours, and a final result might not be determined in some races for days or longer. But some contests will be over quickly.
Here is a look at some of the key races and potential trends to watch as the election results roll in.
THE FIRST STATES TO CLOSE THE POLLS
The first polls close in parts of Indiana and Kentucky at 6 p.m. EDT, and all voting concludes in those states an hour later.
In Kentucky, Democratic Representative Ben Chandler faces an unexpectedly tough fight for re-election to a fourth House term. If he falls, it could be the first sign of a Republican landslide.
"Republicans will win the House even if Chandler wins," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. "But if Chandler loses, it suggests the Republican wave is bigger than anyone expected."
Indiana has two endangered Democratic House incumbents, Joe Donnelly and Baron Hill. Democrats looking for a good omen will be rooting hard for both.
In Senate races, Indiana's Democratic seat will likely be the first to switch to Republicans. Kentucky's Senate race will likely give the Senate its first Tea Party member -- Republican Rand Paul has opened a solid lead on Democrat Jack Conway.
THE NEXT WAVE
An even bigger round of House tests comes when a handful of states close their polls at 7 p.m. EDT. In Virginia, President Barack Obama will make a late campaign visit on Friday to help freshman Democrat Tom Perriello, who appears headed to defeat.
If Republicans pick off even one of two other endangered Democratic incumbents in Virginia, Rick Boucher and Gerry Connolly, they are headed to huge House gains.
Georgia is home to two House Democrats in toss-up races, Sanford Bishop and Jim Marshall, who could become the latest victims of the creeping Republican takeover of the deep South.
Polls also close at this hour in most of Florida, where Republicans could begin to roll up big House gains. Unexpected comebacks by Democratic incumbents Alan Grayson or Suzanne Kosmas would be huge, as would wins by Democratic incumbents Allen Boyd and Ron Klein who are in toss-up races.
"There are tons of competitive races. You are going to have some real upsets that nobody saw coming, and you'll have some Democrats surviving who weren't expected to survive," Sabato said. "And you have to figure out the balance. Which side of the ledger is building up more chips?"
CAN OHIO BE A BELLWETHER? OR WEST VIRGINIA?
Ohio is a perpetual political battleground and a frequent bellwether of national trends. When its polls close at 7:30 EDT, results will begin rolling in for a half-dozen crucial House races and a heated governors' race.
West Virginia, which also closes its polls then, hosts the first crucial Senate test of the night. Republicans need to sweep six of seven toss-up Senate races, including West Virginia, to capture a majority.
A quick West Virginia victory for Democratic Governor Joe Manchin would begin to close the door on Republican chances for Senate control. A win for Republican businessman John Raese would leave Senate Democrats sweating until they get the returns from the West Coast.
THE FLOOD BEGINS
At 8 p.m. EDT, polls close in a host of states with critical House and Senate races, including Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Missouri, New Jersey, Texas, Alabama and South Dakota.
In Pennsylvania, a half-dozen incumbent House Democrats are in tough re-election battles.
"The Republicans want an absolute minimum of three seats out of Pennsylvania and they'd like to get four or five," Sabato said. "If they don't get it, it tells you they are not doing nearly as well as they wanted to."
Republicans also need a Senate win in Pennsylvania to have realistic hopes of claiming a majority. Democratic Senate wins in both West Virginia and Pennsylvania would slam the door on Republican hopes before the Western states finish voting.
THE WEST COAST FIREWALL - UP ALL NIGHT
Nevada, which hosts the top Senate race of the year, closes its polls at 10 p.m. EDT. Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid is in a desperate struggle against Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle.
An hour later, Democrats are counting on Senate wins in California and Washington to ensure they retain a majority -- even if they suffer heavy losses elsewhere.
If a Senate majority hinges on those late races, the suspense could last well into Wednesday or beyond.
"It's going to be a very late night. I do think the Senate will come down to those races out West, and it could take a long time to get all the votes counted," said Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota.
(Editing by Vicki Allen)
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