You’ve probably seen plenty of projections about who’s going to win control of the US Senate during these midterm elections. You’ve also probably heard that only a few races are very competitive, many are foregone conclusions, and the control of the Senate may come down to just a very few close contests.
But no matter how much you prepare, once the returns start coming in on the night of November 4, things tend to get confusing for viewers at home as competitive and non-competitive races are called at the same time while polls close over several hours around the country.
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Websites like Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com and the The Upshot at the New York Times have extremely detailed breakdowns of the races, but they tend to be arranged by how likely they are to go to the GOP or the Democrats, and that’s not how they’ll come in on election night.
We’ve arranged all of the races by time, not by likelihood of victory, so you can get a sense of what’s going to come in when, and can keep a running tally of who’s winning the Senate at your election night party.
The Senate starts the night with 30 seats held by the GOP, and 34 by the Democrats, who need only 50 seats to maintain their hold on the chamber — because the President of the Senate, Vice President Joe Biden, casts tie-breaking votes.
Oh, and make sure you cast your own vote on November 4. So here we go!
The first polls close and we have our first big contest of the night, in Kentucky. While Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is hoping for GOP control of the chamber, he first needs to win reelection back home. Nate Silver gives McConnell a 78 percent chance of defeating challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes, who had pulled ahead in a couple of polls but then began to fade away. The New York Times has McConnell’s chances at 91 percent. If they’re right, it’s GOP 31 seats, Democrats 34.
One competitive race and three noncompetitive ones wrap up now. Democrat Mark Warner should easily win re-election in Virginia, and Republicans Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott should be re-elected in South Carolina. The race to watch here is in Georgia, where Democrat Michelle Nunn is up against Republican David Perdue. Nate Silver has her chances at 34 percent, and the Times has her at 39 percent — though recent polls have her pulling into a virtual tie. If they’re right and Perdue wins, the GOP is now at 34 seats, Democrats 35.
Republican Shelley Moore Caputo should cruise in West Virginia. In North Carolina, polls close on a race that had looked to be tight, but Democrat Kay Hagan has been pulling away. Silver estimates her chances at 73 percent over Republican Thom Tillis, and the Times has her at 82 percent. If they’re right, it’s now 36-35 to the Dems.
A bunch of foregone conclusions will come in here, and two others. Alabama (Jeff Sessions), Maine (Susan Collins), Mississippi (Thad Cochran), Oklahoma (Jim Inhofe and James Lankford), Tennessee (Lamar Alexander), and Texas (John Cornyn) should all come in for the GOP, while Delaware (Chris Coons), Illinois (Dick Durbin), Massachusetts (Ed Markey), New Hampshire (Jeanne Shaheen), New Jersey (Cory Booker), and Rhode Island (Jack Reed) should all come easily for the Dems. Michigan is a little more competitive, but both Nate Silver and the Times give Democrat Gary Peters better than a 90 percent chance to win over Terri Lynn Land.
A much more interesting fight is happening in Kansas, where an Independent, Gary Orman, has been leading incumbent Republican Pat Roberts. If he wins, Orman will probably caucus with the Democrats. Silver gives Orman a 54 percent chance to win, but the Times has him only at 48 percent as Roberts, with the help of outside money, has managed to crawl out of a deep hole.
Meanwhile, polls also close now in South Dakota, which is a real mess. Former Republican Governor Mike Rounds was favored to win, but he’s faced stiff competition from Larry Pressler, a three-time GOP South Dakota senator who served from 1979 to 1997. Pressler may have gotten a boost from the recent movie American Hustle, which portrayed him as the senator who wouldn’t take a bribe in the Abscam scandal. Pressler is running as an independent, and he’s benefited from major ad spending targeting Rounds. That splitting of the Republican vote has allowed Democratic challenger Rick Weiland to pull within a few points of the two of them, but he’s still an outside shot. If Pressler upsets Rounds, he might caucus with the Democrats, but Nate Silver gives Rounds an 87 percent chance to win, and the Times has him at 90 percent. If they’re right about South Dakota, and Silver is right about Kansas and Orman wins there, we’re now at GOP 43, Democrats 44.
Polls close in Arkansas, where Democratic incumbent Mark Pryor and Republican challenger Tom Cotton have each run into questions about the things they wrote while they were at college, of all things. Pryor was attacked this week for having called desegregation an “unwilling invasion” in his college thesis nearly 30 years ago — but the website that dug up that nugget get didn’t quote just a few sentences later, which make it clear that Pryor was only characterizing the feeling of desegregation’s critics at the time. By then, however, Pryor was already sagging in the polls, so even if the truth gets its pants on and catches up to the lie, as it were, it may not help much. Nate Silver has Pryor with only a 16 percent chance to be re-elected over Cotton, and the Times gives him 23 percent. If they’re right, we’re now tied at GOP 44, Democrats 44.
Two close races come in now, and four noncompetitive ones. Nebraska (Ben Sasse) and Wyoming (Mike Enzi) will come in for the GOP, and Minnesota (Al Franken) and New Mexico (Tom Udall) will get called for the Democrats. In Colorado, Democratic Senator Mark Udall has seen his early lead disappear, and Nate Silver gives the Democrat only a 26 percent chance to overcome challenger Cory Gardner. The Times gives Udall a 30 percent chance. In Louisiana, another Democratic incumbent is in trouble. Silver gives Mary Landrieu only a 22 percent chance to defeat Republican Dan Cassidy, and the Times is even more pessimistic, giving her an 8 percent chance. (There’s also the possibility that no winner will emerge with more than 50 percent of the vote in Louisiana, and we’ll have to wait for a December runoff to decide that seat.) If the projections are right and Udall and Landrieu lose, we’re now at GOP 48, Dems 46.
One very tight race and two predictable ones come in now. Democrat Jeff Merkley should easily win re-election in Oregon, and Republican Steve Daines should win in Montana. The close race this hour is in Iowa, where Republican Joni Ernst and Democrat Bruce Braley have been battling neck and neck. Silver gives Ernst a 65 percent chance to win, and the Times gives her a 64 percent edge. If they’re right and Ernst edges Braley out, we’re now at GOP 50, Democrats 47.
Two foregone conclusions here. Democrat Brian Schatz cruises to victory in Hawaii, and Republican Jim Risch wins re-election in Idaho. Now we’re at GOP 51, Democrats 48.
The last state of the night, Alaska, begins closing its polls now, but it may be far into the morning before we know who wins this battleground state. Nate Silver gives Democrat Mark Begich only a 21 percent chance to win re-election against Republican Dan Sullivan. The Times judges his chances at 22 percent. If they’re right, the final tally will be GOP 52, Democrats 48.
Some of these races are very tight, and the small probabilistic advantages predicted by Silver and the Times don’t doom a candidate who’s within striking distance. But unless the Democratic Party can boost its chances with a better turnout rate than it gets in midterm elections — particularly among young and non-white voters — things look grim for its chances to hold onto control of the Senate.