On election night, the political handicappers and pundits will search for electoral sentinels. These are signals in the vote with which to gauge how the presidential election may tilt. They'll probe election results in Montgomery County, PA, Hamilton County, OH and Loudoun County, VA.
But election clues are also nestled among House and Senate results, too. These are beacons which help decode the vote for president. And more importantly, they serve as emblematic symbols which could demystify the makeup of the House and Senate in the 113th Congress.
Let's start in the 2nd Congressional District of Maine.
This is one of the northern-most districts in the continental United States. It shares a border with Quebec and New Brunswick in Canada and features towns like Bangor, Caribou and Presque Isle.
Mitt Romney's campaign and the conservative interest groups have spent money in very cheap media markets in northern Maine in an effort to court a single electoral vote there. With two senators and two House members, Maine's four electoral votes are a trifling prize in the presidential sweepstakes.
Except when things are this tight.
Unlike 48 other states, the allocation of electoral votes in Maine and Nebraska is based on which presidential candidate carries each Congressional district. Rep. Michael Michaud (D-ME) represents northern Maine and is expected to win re-election over Republican Kevin Raye. The experts believe President Obama will carry the state. But could Michaud face trouble if voters in his district decide to cast their ballots for Romney? Would there be that much ticket-splitting? And if there is, and the president wins, watch to see how much Michaud outperforms the president in that district. Moreover, a strong performance by Michaud could dictate his political future. When Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) announced her retirement earlier this year, Michaud told me "I think I would be a good fit for a statewide race" as he pondered whether to campaign for Senate this round.
Michaud ultimately passed on this year's Maine's Senate contest. But how would Michaud be in a race for governor in 2014? Or, would Michaud opt to take on Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) in two years?
There are also unique circumstances in the 2nd Congressional District of Nebraska. In 2008, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) carried the Cornhusker State. But he captured only four of the state's five electoral votes. President Obama won the district represented by Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE) - even as voters cleaved their ticket to return Terry to Washington.
Omaha is Nebraska's largest city. It comprises most of the 2nd Congressional District. Unlike 2008, the district isn't thought to be on the radar for Mr. Obama this year. But it is by far the most "Democratic" district in Nebraska. The state also features a competitive Senate contest between GOP nominee Deb Fischer and former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-NE). Fischer's a tea party favorite and has consistently led in the polls since securing the Republican nomination. But Kerrey's gotten traction in recent weeks. It would take a Herculean effort for Kerrey to return to the Senate at this point, but not out of the question. However, if Kerrey is successful, he will win on the ballots of those from Omaha. That could portend good things for the president if he has any shot of recapturing one of Nebraska's five electoral votes. Few saw President Obama winning Nebraska's 2nd Congressional District four years ago.
New Hampshire is a swing state in the presidential race. That's put both of the state's Congressmen, Reps. Charlie Bass (R-NH) and Frank Guinta (R-NH) on notice. Ann Kuster and former Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH) are trying to unseat the Republican lawmakers. If President Obama wins New Hampshire, that's a good sign for Kuster and Shea-Porter. Bass and Guinta will benefit from a Romney victory.
A similar scenario is at play in Iowa. Much like New Hampshire, Iowa is a minimal electoral trophy. But Iowa's a battleground state between the president and Romney. And like New Hampshire, there are a pair of competitive House races here, too. Reps. Leonard Boswell (D-IA) and Tom Latham (R-IA) are locked in a brutal, member-versus-member contest. Meantime, tea party loyalist Rep. Steve King (R-IA) is waging a pitched proxy battle with the Obama Administration. King's trying to stave off a challenge from Democratic nominee Christie Vilsack, wife of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. Both House races are tight. These races could hinge on which presidential candidate carries the Hawkeye State.
Then there are Senate races which Republicans thought were a lock just a few months ago.
Republicans expressed hyper-confidence at the start of 2012. The GOP didn't seize the Senate in 2010. But they thought 2012 was their year. With 33 Senate seats up this cycle, Democrats had to defend 23 of them compared to just ten for the Republicans.
There are competitive Senate races in Maine, Connecticut, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana, Missouri, Florida, Nebraska, North Dakota, Montana, Arizona and Hawaii. Democrats currently hold a 53-47 advantage in the Senate. Republicans are within striking distance. But the GOP could face a major embarrassment if they fail to hold the Indiana Senate seat and stumble in flipping the Missouri Senate seat.
In Indiana, tea party darling Richard Mourdock toppled six-term Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) in the GOP primary. But many Indiana voters see Mourdock as too extreme and unwilling to work across party lines. That's one of the reasons moderate Democrat Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-IN) has made serious moves over the past few weeks and is now believed to be in the lead.
Missouri holds a similar problem for the GOP. Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO) defeated two other "establishment" Republican candidates to secure his party's nomination in August. Akin then outraged many with his comments about rape and reproduction. The nomination of Akin and his subsequent missteps could be the greatest political gift bestowed to Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO). After all, pundits thought McCaskill was the most-vulnerable Democratic senator this cycle. Akin is surprisingly close to McCaskill now. But there will be hell to pay among the GOP ranks if either an Akin or Mourdock loss costs Republicans Senate control.
There are a few "boutique" races which bear watching.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) is believed to be well-positioned for re-election against his challenger, Rep. Connie Mack (R-FL). Meantime, the Congressman's wife, Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-CA) is in a dogfight against Raul Ruiz. If both lose, Mack and Bono Mack would become the first Congressional couple to ever receive such a dubious, double, electoral whammy.
Another race garnering attention is the contest between Rep. Jim Matheson (D-UT) against GOP upstart Mia Love. If voters elect Love, she becomes the first African American woman to ever sit in the House of Representatives. Matheson is a Blue Dog Democrat and one of the most-moderate members of the body. If Love unseats Matheson, it means the ranks of the Blue Dogs continue on a downward spiral.
Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) is pitted against GOP nominee Rick Snuffer. Rahall defeated Snuffer in 2004. But post-tropical storm Sandy buried much of Rahall's district with more than two feet of snow. The coating of white made it tough to campaign in a state that's turning increasingly red.
In May, 2011, Democrats thought they were on to something. Rep. Kathy Hochul (D-NY) won a special election to take the seat once held by embattled Rep. Chris Lee (R-NY). The switch of the seat shocked many as Republicans dominated the seat for 40 years. Multiple factors helped propel Hochul to victory. But she propounded a powerful message that Republicans wanted to fundamentally alter Medicare.
Hochul's now in a tough re-election battle with Republican Chris Collins. But in 2011, many believed Democrats would cannibalize Hochul's successful Medicare model to hammer Republicans. In fact, it was thought that Democrats would really take notice of the Hochul approach after Romney tapped Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) as his running mate. Ryan is the architect of a budget which converts Medicare into a voucher system for seniors. Democrats certainly hit Ryan and the GOP on Medicare but not to the degree many anticipated.
Finally, committee chairmen don't lose very often in the House of Representatives - except when one party is on target to wrest away control of the body. That happened in 1994 when Republicans won control of the House. The same happened in 2006 when Democrats got it back. Republicans returned to power in 2010. In the process, they defeated House Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN), Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt (D-SC) and Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-MO).
Democrats truly don't have much of a chance to re-take the House this time around. But they certainly have a good opportunity to fell a House committee chairman.
In the crosshairs this time is House Administration Committee Chairman Dan Lungren (R-CA) as he faces Democrat Ami Bera.
So the pundits will stare at the election results on Tuesday night to try to decipher what they mean. But these contests will also shed some light on what's in store for the 113th Congress.