This election season, you learned that Christine O'Donnell is "not a witch," that Harry Reid has a lot of money and that Rand Paul supposedly belonged to some secret society in college. But the people who grabbed the biggest headlines this year may not be the ones to watch on election night.
Democrats are trying to preserve their majorities in the House and Senate tonight, and Republicans are poised to take over governorships around the country. Yet several of the biggest-name candidates are irrelevant when it comes to assessing the all-important takeover scenarios. Republican O'Donnell isn't favored to win in Delaware; but in Washington state, Dino Rossi -- whose campaign didn't garner major national headlines for scandals -- is considered a game-changing challenger to Democratic Sen. Patty Murray.
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Below, we map out what to watch tonight and why. We also give a last look to some of the candidates who may not offer a surprise result but have made more than their share of news this campaign season.
POTENTIAL SENATE GAME-CHANGERS
Colorado: Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet has been stuck in a gray area throughout his re-election bid. Everyone knew that the senator, who was appointed in January 2009 to replace Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, had the reputation of a newbie and was therefore vulnerable. But Republican Ken Buck has had plenty of campaign stumbles and had to deal with an aggressive Democratic defense in the state. As a tea party candidate, Buck will get lots of scrutiny as part of the overall tea party storyline on Tuesday--but more important, his fortunes at the polls could make or break Democratic hopes of maintaining a Senate majority.
Nevada: Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, spent this entire cycle trying to pull himself out of grim polling figures--and largely failed. He's become a symbol this year of voter discontent with Democratic leadership--and the GOP would like nothing more than to make an example of him. Political observers rightly view his hard-fought campaign against tea party favorite Sharron Angle as a gauge of both voter disenchantment with the status quo and tea party political clout. If Democrats win this race, it would likely stand as one of the biggest victories of the night.
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Washington: This race is one of the major Senate battles. If Democratic Sen. Patty Murray loses her re-election bid, Dino Rossi's win will put the Republican Party one step closer to capturing a majority. A GOP win here would also end Rossi's statewide losing streak and prove that the independent-minded state of Washington is not as liberal as Democrats would like to believe.
West Virginia: Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin would have been easily favored to win this Senate seat in any other election year—he has the name recognition, the record, the network and the experience. But this isn't just any election year. So Manchin has made a point of running against the Democratic establishment this cycle, even wielding a rifle in a campaign ad to shoot a hole through the Democrat-supported energy cap-and-trade bill. He has also refused to pledge his support for Harry Reid as Senate Democratic leader in January (if Reid is re-elected) and Barack Obama as president in 2012. This race not only will be pivotal in the fight for Senate control; it will help determine whether Democrats can successfully separate themselves from their party colleagues in Washington.
Pennsylvania: Republican Pat Toomey and Democrat Joe Sestak each gave this race his all--and many prognosticators still say it could go either way. Pennsylvania is a key swing state that the White House hopes to keep in the Democratic column ahead of 2012.
Wisconsin: Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold looks like he may lose his re-election race this year, despite his efforts to blaze an independent trail in the Senate. A Feingold loss would be a major indicator of the harsh political climate that's had Democrats struggling all year.
U.S. Senate in Alaska: This race is expected to go Republican. The question is, which Republican? GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski chose to run as a write-in candidate after tea party Republican Joe Miller ousted the incumbent in the primary. It's unclear whether Murkowski will be able to overcome the many logistical hurdles of a write-in campaign--or whether Miller will rally his energized conservative base to carry the day. One thing's certain: We're unlikely to get a straight result out of this race anytime soon. Deadlines for Alaska to count absentee and overseas ballots stretch for weeks--making a tight race potentially a long cliffhanger.
Governor of Colorado: Constitution Party candidate Tom Tancredo turned this race from a nearly certain Democratic win (after Republican Dan Maes' campaign stumbles) into a three-candidate circus. Democrat John Hickenlooper appears favored to win the open seat race, but Tancredo continued to amass support from both the GOP establishment and the tea party in the final weeks of the campaign. He even received Sarah Palin's eleventh-hour endorsement Monday.
U.S. Senate in Florida: Watch this race to see how Gov. Charlie Crist fares. This spring, Crist abandoned his Republican Party label to wage a "no-party" campaign when it appeared as if he wouldn't win the primary against tea party favorite Marco Rubio. Rubio's margin against Crist will be the highlight of this race: If Crist makes it close (or manages to win), observers will say it's evidence that Florida voters haven't completely abandoned their governor and that many still desire someone more moderate in their state's top office.
Connecticut: It's not every day that a World Wide Wrestling executive gets into politics. Republican Linda McMahon's campaign grabbed headlines from the beginning, though she always faced a difficult road in the Democratic-leaning state.
Delaware: Republican Christine O'Donnell was never strongly favored to win -- but her past statements about mouse brains and other topics, on Bill Maher's show and elsewhere, made her a celebrity. Observers had many occasions to question O'Donnell's readiness for office--but this tea party candidate waged a serious and aggressive campaign. O'Donnell's is expected to lose to Democrat Chris Coons, but it's unlikely this marks the last time we see O'Donnell in the political arena.
Kentucky: From "Aqua Buddha" to head-stomping, this race was in the national news for much of this year. But now it doesn't appear that this race will be a surprise. Republican Rand Paul, a tea party star, appears likely to win and follow his father, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), to Washington.
OTHER MAJOR RACES TO WATCH
Florida governor: Democrat Alex Sink and Republican Rick Scott are battling this open-seat race until the bitter end, and the winner will be the political leader of a major swing state.
Florida's 8th Congressional District: Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson's proclivity for brash attacks and outlandish statements was on full display in his race against Republican Dan Webster. But it appears that brio won't be enough to save Grayson.
Florida's 22nd Congressional District: It will be a true tea party victory if Republican Allen West beats Democratic Rep. Ron Klein in a rematch.
Ohio governor: The White House has been taking this race personally. Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland's tenuous hold on his seat has Democrats nationwide concerned about the future of this swing state.
Oregon governor: Democratic former Gov. John Kitzhaber is battling against Republican Chris Dudley for this open seat in a test of the draw of an establishment Democratic candidate.
(Photo of Rossi: AP/Ted S. Warren. Photo of O'Donnell: AP/Rob Carr.)
- Democratic Sen. Patty Murray
- Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin
- Interior Secretary Ken Salazar
- Dino Rossi