Fight for control of U.S. Congress could run late
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- The election-night vote count in the battle for Congress could stretch into the early hours of Wednesday -- but Republicans desperately hope it won't.
They want to stop Democrats early, in crucial eastern battleground states like New Jersey, Florida, Kentucky and, in the case of the Senate, most definitely Virginia.
House Democrats, meanwhile, are counting on strong late showings out West, in California, Washington, Montana and even mostly Republican Utah, to put them over the top. In the Senate, the dream Democratic scenario has wins in Washington and Montana delivering the final blows to Republican supremacy.
"It's going to be a long night," " said Jennifer Duffy, a Senate analyst with the Cook Political Report. "I don't think we're going to know for a while."
All 435 House seats and 34 of the 100 Senate seats are at stake Tuesday, but only a few dozen House races and less than a dozen in the Senate will decide who retains control of Congress.
The first polls close at 6 p.m. EST in Indiana and Kentucky, where three key House races could be decided -- two in Kentucky, where Republican incumbents Anne Northup and Ernie Fletcher face stiff challenges, and one in Indiana, where Republican incumbent John Hostettler is trying to hold on.
Those three races could give a crucial early glimpse of Republican strength, and in the next two hours polls will close and more than a dozen key House races could be decided in battleground states like Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut, Michigan and Missouri.
A good early showing by Republicans, who hold a slim seven-vote margin in the House, could blunt the clear strength of Democrats in the West, where they hope to pick up as many as four seats in California, at least one in Washington and one each in Montana and Utah.
"The West Coast is the mother lode for Democrats, there are seven seats out there for them," said Amy Walter, a House analyst at the Cook report.
Jim Wilkinson, spokesman for the House Republican campaign committee, said Republicans planned to put an early end to the suspense.
"We believe we'll know pretty early," Wilkinson said. "If we do well on the East Coast, California won't matter."
In the Senate, Republicans have been rattled in the last week by a Democratic surge in several key races that has threatened the Republicans' 54-46 Senate majority.
Six Republican incumbents -- in Delaware, Minnesota, Michigan, Missouri, Montana and Washington -- are in extremely tough re-election fights, an open Florida Republican seat is leaning Democratic and endangered Virginia Democrat Charles Robb has closed the gap in his uphill battle for re-election against former Gov. George Allen.
The first and biggest key on election night will be Virginia, where polls close at 7 p.m. EST and a win is considered crucial for both parties.
Republicans say a win in Virginia, along with an expected victory in a race for an open Democratic seat in Nevada, would essentially kill Democratic hopes of a majority.
"Virginia is the door slammer," said Stuart Roy, spokesman for the Republican Senate campaign committee. Picking up those two states would force Democrats to sweep the seven competitive Republican-held states to get a majority.
But a Democratic victory in Virginia opens up possibilities for Democrats, allowing them to fall short in one of the closely contested Republican seats and still gain a majority.
"If Robb wins, the Senate is in play," Duffy said. "If Allen wins, there is not a lot of light shining under that door for Democrats."
Democrats should do well early in the evening, perhaps knocking off Republican incumbent William Roth in Delaware, who is in the race of his life against Democratic Gov. Tom Carper.
Democrats also must hold their open Senate seats in hotly contested New York, where Democratic first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton faces Republican Rep. Rick Lazio, and New Jersey, where big-spending Democrat Jon Corzine has a narrow lead over Republican Rep. Bob Franks.
The battle for the Senate could come down to Montana, where Republican incumbent Conrad Burns is in a dead heat with Democratic rancher Brian Schweitzer, and Washington, where Republican incumbent Slade Gorton has a narrow lead over software millionaire Maria Cantwell.
Washington does not count absentee ballots until later in the week, meaning an extremely tight race could be in limbo for days, Roy said.
"It really in the end will come down to Montana and Washington, and that is what's going to keep us up late," Duffy said. "It's something that will go back and forth, back and forth."
Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.