2010 Elections Viewer's Guide

What you need to know to follow the battle for Congress.

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Capitol Hill won't look so blue next year, that's for sure. Yet not until Tuesday will the real colors of this election season emerge: Will the chambers of Congress take on more of a Republican red hue or have a purple, bipartisan mix?

Political junkies have a long night to find out—the last polls, in Alaska and Hawaii, won't close until midnight Eastern time—but it should be clear earlier in the evening whether the trumpeted Republican tidal wave has arrived, or whether Democrats have weathered the storm. Experts say that there are between 95 and 100 competitive House districts, almost all represented by Democrats, and roughly 20 Senate seats in play, 12 currently in the Democratic column. Republicans need a net gain of 39 seats in the House and 10 in the Senate to reach majority status in each chamber. Analysts say that the House is well within reach, but the GOP needs to run the table in the Senate. Along with deciding majorities, the elections will answer questions about the strength of the Tea Party movement and the depth of the anti-incumbent mood in the country.

U.S. News surveyed political experts and party strategists to prepare a viewer's guide to the most competitive congressional elections. They are listed in chronological order according to Eastern Daylight Time:

[See a slide show of 11 hot races to watch on Election Day.]

7PM Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, South Carolina, Virginia, and Vermont

Senate: The top-billed Senate matchup is in Kentucky, where Republican ophthalmologist Rand Paul faces Democratic nominee and state Attorney General Jack Conway. According to strategists, the seat, now held by retiring Kentucky Republican Sen. Jim Bunning, is the Democrats' best chance nationwide to pick up one held by the GOP. But backlash over a recent Conway campaign ad—alleging that in college Paul tied up a woman and forced her to bow down to a god called "Aqua Buddha"—has tilted the race toward Paul. A recent poll by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling found that 56 percent of voters think the ad was inappropriate. A Paul win here would be a signature victory for the Tea Party movement.

Expected GOP House gains: Political handicappers rate 6 to 11 Democratic seats from these states as likely to flip to the GOP. These include the open seat in Indiana's Eighth District, now held by Democratic Senate nominee Brad Ellsworth, for which Republican Larry Bucshon is highly favored over Democrat Trent Van Haaften. Also, watch Virginia's Fifth District, where Rep. Tom Perriello trails challenger Robert Hurt. While unlikely, Democratic wins in these districts would signal unexpected strength.

Bellwether House toss-ups: The dozen or so districts seen as most competitive in these states include Georgia's Eighth, a historically Republican area located in the center of the state. Republican Austin Scott is neck and neck with Democratic Rep. Jim Marshall. And while some handicappers give them a slight lead, Democratic Reps. Ben Chandler in Kentucky's Sixth District and Gerry Connolly in Virginia's 11th, located just outside Washington, are in close contests with their GOP challengers. If these early tossups all go in one direction, it would be a strong signal of party strength.

Democrats' worst case: In Kentucky's Third District, Rep. John Yarmuth, the founder of Congress's bourbon caucus, was thought safe until recent polls gave him only a slight edge over his GOP foe, Todd Lally. A Yarmuth loss would be a sign of a devastating Republican deluge.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on the 2010 campaigns.]

7:30PM North Carolina, Ohio, and West Virginia

Senate: The North Carolina and Ohio races, once seen as potentially competitive, have apparently solidified for the Republicans. GOP Sen. Richard Burr is considered the likely victor in North Carolina. And in Ohio, seven-term Republican Congressman Rob Portman, who also served as trade representative and director of the Office of Budget and Management under George W. Bush, has a safe race defending the open GOP seat.


Corrected on : Corrected on 11/01/10: A previous version of this article misstated final poll closing times for Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, and Texas.
Corrected on 11/02/10: A previous version of this article misstated final poll closing times for Arizona, Arkansas, and New Hampshire.