Settle In: Election Night Viewers’ Guide

by Nathan L. Gonzales November 6, 2012 · 8:00 AM EST

With eight presidential swing states, a dozen competitive Senate seats and more than 60 House seats in play, it’s impossible to follow them all as polls close and returns trickle in tonight. Here is a guide for when and where to focus your attention to accurately measure how things are going for each party on election night.

7 p.m. Poll Closings

In just four years, the commonwealth has gone from Republican bastion to potential perennial battleground. With 13 electoral votes, Virginia isn’t the largest swing state, but with a mixture of upper-class suburbs, exurbs and rural areas, as well as African-American and Hispanic communities, it is a microcosm of the country. If former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) wins Virginia, the presidential contest could be very close, but if President Barack Obama wins, he is well on his way to a second term. The Senate race between former Govs. Tim Kaine (D) and George Allen (R) is one of the most competitive in the country, and it could determine the Senate majority. On the House side, Virginia is a great example of Democrats’ difficulty this cycle. Rep. Scott Rigell (R) in the 2nd district is the most vulnerable incumbent, but he’s not at particular risk of losing. This is the type of district Democrats have to win to be in the majority, which isn’t going to happen this cycle.

It’s no surprise the Sunshine State is one to watch on election night. Florida is the largest of the swing states and a must-win for Romney. If he doesn’t, the presidential race is over. Based on the rest of the swing states, the GOP nominee can’t afford to lose Florida’s 29 electoral votes. Sen. Bill Nelson (D) doesn’t look to be in imminent danger of losing to Rep. Connie Mack IV (R), so if a Romney rout gets Mack close, Republicans could win a Senate majority after all because other states are more within range. Early in the cycle, Democrats expected a plethora of House opportunities but are left with less than a handful. Democratic challengers to GOP Reps. Allen West, Daniel Webster and Steve Southerland are all underdogs, and defeating any of them would be notable. If Democrats can’t knock off embattled Rep. David Rivera (R), they might as well turn off the television for the evening. Former Rep. Alan Grayson (D) is well-positioned to return to Congress, and it will make for entertaining delegation meetings with him and West in the same room.

7:30 p.m. Poll Closings

The granddaddy of them all. It seems cliché to watch the Buckeye State, but it remains at the epicenter of the fight for the presidency. Even when Romney surged after the first debate, Obama maintained his narrow advantage for Ohio’s 18 electoral votes, according to public polling, in part because of his effort to help the auto industry. Republicans believe the race is much closer, so if Romney pulls out a victory, that likely means other polling has understated GOP performance nationwide. Of course, no Republican has won the White House without Ohio. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) comes into election night with a small but significant advantage over state Treasurer Josh Mandel (R), so an incumbent loss would be a surprise. On the House side, the 16th district features a faceoff between Reps. Jim Renacci (R) and Betty Sutton (D), while former Rep. Charlie Wilson (D) is trying to avenge his 2010 loss to Rep. Bill Johnson (R) in the 6th district. Winning one would be a moral victory for Democrats, but they needed to put more than these two races in play to make a difference in the overall House margin.

North Carolina
The Tarheel State is one of three states — along with Ohio and Pennsylvania — where Republicans exercised their redistricting muscle. The GOP plan will land them the 13th district (where Democratic Rep. Brad Miller decided to retire) and they should win the 11th district (where Democratic Rep. Heath Shuler opted for retirement) and the 8th district, currently represented by Rep. Larry Kissell (D). A Democratic victory in any of those races would be a shocking result. Republicans also have an opportunity against Rep. Mike McIntyre (D) in the 7th district. McIntyre is one of three Southern Democrats — along with Reps. Ben Chandler (Ky.) and John Barrow (Ga.) — who are in jeopardy tonight, but he’s still very much in the race against former Hill aide David Rouzer (R). If Republicans indeed net three, or even four, seats in North Carolina, it would insulate their majority from potential losses later tonight in Illinois and California.

8 p.m. Poll Closings

The Land of Lincoln isn’t a presidential battleground and doesn’t even have a U.S. Senate race this year, but it is the president’s home state and Democrats have to get some positive net gain of a handful of House races to avoid a completely embarrassing night. Democrats used their redistricting authority to target and orphan Republican Members, but up until Election Day, even some of the most vulnerable Republicans have a chance to survive. Rep. Joe Walsh (R) is the most likely to lose. On paper, GOP Reps. Robert Dold in the 10th district and Bobby Schilling in the 17th have no business winning districts where Obama would have received more than 60 percent in 2008, but it would almost be more of a surprise if both of them lost. The redrawn 11th district has been neck and neck between Rep. Judy Biggert (R) and former Rep. Bill Foster (D), but Republicans aren’t optimistic about the Congresswoman’s chances. Downstate features two of the most contested races anywhere in the country. Democrats are targeting the open 13th district and trying to hold the open 12th district. Overall, Illinois could be feast or famine for Democrats and set the tone for the rest of the night.

New Hampshire
The Granite State provides the most bang for your buck. Romney and Obama are battling for the state’s four electoral votes, both Congressional seats are tossups, and the gubernatorial race is one of the most competitive in the country. We could be headed for a repeat of 2004 and 2000, when 1 point separated the presidential contenders. The 1st district has been traditionally more Republican, electing a Republican from 1984 until Carol Shea Porter’s (D) upset win in 2006. Rep. Frank Guinta (R) defeated her in 2010 and took back the seat, and now the two face off again. The 2nd district is slightly more Democratic and has flipped back and forth between the two parties over the years. Rep. Charles Bass (R) narrowly won in 2010 and is in a tough fight against Democrat Ann McLane Kuster. If she can’t win, it’s going to be a very long night for Democrats. Winning both would be great but still doesn’t get them anywhere close to a majority.

9 p.m. Poll Closings

The Centennial State already had a fundamental effect on the election after the first presidential debate in Denver reframed the election and boosted Romney’s chances. But Colorado (nine electoral votes) remains a critical swing state. Republicans have been very bullish on their chances here in the final weeks leading up to Election Day, and the state is a must-win for Romney if he loses Ohio earlier in the evening. Three competitive Congressional seats could reveal what kind of night Democrats are having on the House side. The redrawn, Aurora-based 6th district should be a prime takeover opportunity, but Rep. Mike Coffman (R) has a very narrow edge over attorney Joe Miklosi (D). Democrats tout Sal Pace’s challenge to Rep. Scott Tipton (R) in the Western Slope’s 3rd district, but that race looks to be slipping out of range. In addition, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D) is trying to fend off a significant challenge from Republican Joe Coors. At one point, Democrats thought of netting three seats in Colorado, including defeating Rep. Cory Gardner (R), but in a worst-case scenario, they could lose another seat.

New York
While part of the Empire State is reeling from Hurricane Sandy, New York is host to one of the largest batches of competitive Congressional races anywhere in the country. At one point, House Democrats were targeting the state for huge gains, but now reality is setting in. Former Rep. Dan Maffei (D) has a good chance of returning to Congress by defeating Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle (R) in the 24th district. But Rep. Kathy Hochul (D) is extremely vulnerable and could lose to former Erie County Executive Chris Collins (R). So if Maffei wins and Hochul loses, Democrats have only exchanged seats. Democrats have a few other targets including Reps. Michael Grimm, Nan Hayworth and Chris Gibson, but each Republican looked to have the edge before today. And Democrats still have other vulnerabilities including Reps. Tim Bishop, Bill Owens and Louise Slaughter. Democrats need a net gain of at least three seats, but a net loss isn’t out of the question.

The Romney campaign is eyeing the Badger State as a key entry point into penetrating Obama’s Midwest firewall. Even before Rep. Paul Ryan (R) was added to the ticket, Wisconsin was likely to be a swing state because before 2004, it was one of the closest presidential states in the country. Ohio gets all the attention and Wisconsin is just 10 electoral votes, but the state is likely to be a decisive factor in who wins the White House. The open-seat Senate race between former Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) and Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D) has been one of the closest in the country, and the winner could foretell which party controls the Senate next year. On the House side, the lack of competitive races is part of Democrats’ problems nationwide. But if Rep. Sean Duffy (R) loses re-election, Democrats are having a better-than-expected night.

10 p.m. Poll Closings

Watch Dan Cox. You’ve probably never heard of him, but he’s the Libertarian candidate running for the U.S. Senate. If he garners vote percentages in the high single or low double digits, it would allow Sen. Jon Tester (D) to win with a plurality rather than a majority over Rep. Denny Rehberg (R). The two men have been locked in a close race for virtually the entire cycle. Montana is a test to see how willing voters are to split their tickets in an era of polarization. Tester and former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp in neighboring North Dakota both have to overcome strong showings by Romney at the top of the ticket. Montana also features a competitive gubernatorial contest in the race to replace Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D), and an open Congressional seat race to replace Rehberg. Republicans must defeat Tester to get back to the majority.

Nevada remains one of eight presidential swing states, although in the campaign’s waning days, it seems Obama has a clear edge in winning its six electoral votes. Obama’s road map is fairly simple: run up the score in Clark County (Las Vegas) and battle Romney to a draw (or even win) in Washoe County, including Reno. With a growing Hispanic population and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D) vaunted get-out-the vote operation, a Romney victory would be significant. The question is whether Obama can win the state by a wide enough margin to help Rep. Shelley Berkley (D) defeat Sen. Dean Heller (R). Berkley’s negatives are very high, and she doesn’t have the luxury of running against 2010 nominee Sharron Angle. On the House side, former Rep. Dina Titus (D) is returning to Congress in the redrawn 2nd district, but Democratic hopes of defeating Rep. Joe Heck (R) appear to be fading. In addition, Democrats could lose the new 4th district, where Danny Tarkanian (R) faces Democrat Steven Horsford. If Democrats lose both, they may not gain any seats at all across the country.

11 p.m. Poll Closings

Let’s face it: The Golden State is almost never worth watching when it comes to competitive races. But the state’s new legislative redistricting commission and top-two primary system turned the Congressional map on its head, and the two parties are battling over nine seats, the most of any state in the country. Republican incumbents Brian Bilbray, Dan Lungren, Jeff Denham and Mary Bono Mack are vulnerable, as are Democrats Jerry McNerney and Lois Capps. Both parties are also fighting over a trio of open seats: the 41st, 47th, and 26th — the latter of which could be one of the most competitive in the country. Democrats need to win virtually all of the competitive races to have a real effect on their nationwide count. A few incumbents are vulnerable against same-party challengers including Democratic Reps. Pete Stark, Joe Baca and Gary Miller, and that doesn’t count the 30th and 44th districts, where an incumbent will lose because they face a Congressional colleague. It looks like Democratic Reps. Laura Richardson and Howard Berman will be forced into retirement.