The Bluegrass State is your guide for what to look for tonight so that you can go to bed early and then wake up tomorrow refreshed for the first day of the 734-day long 2016 election season.
Polls close at 6:00 pm in Kentucky. But because half of the state is in the Central time zone, that means that it won’t be until 7:00 pm Eastern that the networks will begin to call the race. That gives analysts an hour to analyze most of the state’s results before they announce any conclusions.
Most of the Democratic-leaning voters live in the Eastern half of the state, which means that for Ms. Grimes to have any chance of unseating Sen. McConnell, she has to roll up a two or three point margin in the Eastern time zone in order to withstand the GOP’s advantage in the western part of the state. In 2010 the networks immediately called Kentucky for Rand Paul because it was obvious that in the eastern part of the state, he already had won and the west was just going to add to his advantage. Look for the same to happen again tonight. If it doesn’t–ie, if Grimes has a narrow lead in the eastern half of the state that delays the call for a GOP win, it portends a hugely disappointing night for Republicans overall.
On election day in 2010 Rand Paul had an 11-point lead in the RCP average. This year, Mitch McConnell’s lead is only 7.2 points. Interestingly, while the spread between the candidates is different, the shape of the race this year is almost identical to what it was in 2010. In the last week of polling, the GOP candidate both times saw a sharp uptick, while the Democratic candidate was down narrowly.
The RCP average had Paul up 51.8 to 40.8. But if you assume that the remaining 7.4% of the electorate that was undecided did not in fact vote, that means that in a two-way race, the RCP average was 55.9% for Paul to 44.1% for Conway. In fact, that was within a tenth of a point of the final results: 55.8 to 44.2. In other words, the RCP average was dead on accurate in Kentucky four years ago. (UPDATE: If the RCP Average this year is correct, McConnell’s 49.0 to 41.8 lead over Grimes translates to 54.0 to 46.0 win in a two-way contest.)
Here’s what to look for in Kentucky to see if RCP is right again, and if they are off, where is the difference and what it might portend for other states.
Jefferson County (Louisville). Conway won 55.4% to Paul’s 44.2% and came out of the county containing Kentucky’s largest city and largest black population with only a 29,000 vote lead. If McConnell either keeps Grimes below 55% or if turnout is significantly below the 258,000 who voted there four years ago, it tells us that the Democrat’s overt racial appeals did not work. If turnout in Jefferson County is up and the margin is much larger, Dems probably are going to do better that expected in states with large urban black populations like Georgia, Louisiana, and North Carolina.
Franklin County (Frankfort). Conway won the state capitol 57.3% to 42.6% and accumulated a lead of 2,742 votes out of 18,566. If McConnell reduces that lead, it means that Obama is dragging down the party even in areas where one of its core member groups (government workers) live. That result should make Mark Warner nervous. If Grimes significantly exceeds Conway’s margin of victory in Franklin County, it may indicate that Dems will exceed their turnout expectations the rest of the night in places like Raleigh, North Carolina.
Fayette County (Lexington). Jack Conway beat Rand Paul by a little over 1,200 votes out of nearly 90,000 in the state’s second-largest city and home to the University of Kentucky. Two years later turnout was up almost 35%, but the margin was still almost the same 1,200 votes between Obama and Romney. If McConnell actually wins Fayette County, it means that either young turnout and/or young voter support for Democrats is way down. If McConnell loses by a bigger margin, it may mean that he will do worse elsewhere with young voters. On the other hand, it may also mean that young turnout for Rand Paul was the motivator four years ago, which would mean that Lexington offers little national implications for 2014, but could portend great things for Rand Paul in 2016.
The last area where Grimes has to do well is in coal country. Kentucky has two areas where coal mining is big: in the southeastern part of the state and in the west near Paducah. In 2010 those areas still had some Democratic holdouts that by 2012 had shifted Republican. If that shift sticks again in a mid-term election, it is bad for Democrats in areas where traditional labor unions are dominant. While the UMW is a special target of modern Democrats, if they lose that traditional blue base, it may mean that unions in the construction and transportation fields are likewise susceptible to a Republican message. One place to watch is Elliott County on the edge of Kentucky’s eastern coal region. It was one of only four counties to vote for Obama in 2012, and is the last Democratic holdout in the state outside of the Democrats’ new demographic of blacks, students, and government workers. Elliott County Kentucky has the distinction of having the longest continuous streak of voting for the Democratic presidential candidate of any county in the country. (You’ll notice below the change from 2010 (left) to 2012 right.) Elliott County is worth only 2,500 votes in a presidential election, and not even 1,500 in a midterm. But if it tilts to the Republican column, it shows that the old New Deal Democratic pull over labor is dead. That tilt won’t happen this year. In 2010 Elliott went exactly 2:1 for Conway over Paul. If McConnell eats into that 2:1 margin in Elliott County, that would be bad for Democrats. If Mitch McConnell manages to hold the majority of the Kentucky counties that Rand Paul lost, but that Mitt Romney won, that is very bad news for candidates at all levels in labor states like Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, and West Virginia.
Mitch McConnell has to do well in the three northernmost Kentucky counties. These Cincinnati suburbs happen to be “Ohio’s” fastest growing communities. What happens there may be indicative of what is to come in other suburban ring counties nationwide. Here are their 2010 and 2012 results:
2010 Sen: R over D, 24,332 (74.4%) to 8,364 (25.6%)
2012 Pres: R over D, 35,922 (68.4%) to 15,629 (29.8%)
2010 Sen: R over D, 18,386 (64.9%) to 9,948 (35.1%)
2012 Pres: R over D, 24,240 (60.3%) to 15,080 (37.5%)
2010 Sen: R over D, 29,372 (66.8%) to 14,582 (33.2%)
2012 Pres: R over D, 41,389 (61.1%) to 24,920 (36.8%)
You’ll notice that in all three counties, turnout in 2012 was up about one-third, and Republican support dropped about 4-6 points. These are counties where Ohioans went to escape higher taxes beginning about the time Dick Celeste was the Buckeye State governor. But they are not so monolithically Republican that Democrats can’t make inroads–especially with suburban women. These three counties will give us our first real indicators of how well the “war on women” worked for Democrats, or how much it backfired. Expect to see slightly lower turnout than in 2010 and slightly better percentages for the Democrat Grimes. But don’t expect those results to get as high a Obama’s 2012 numbers. If Grimes comes close to matching Obama’s 2012 percentages in Boone, Campbell, and Kenton Counties, the war on women worked. If Grimes only matches Conway’s percentages (or worse, if she falls short), it likely indicates that Democrats are losing married women at a precipitous rate and/or that they are losing what remains of their already low level of male support. The results in these three counties may be precursors to what happens in southern New Hampshire with its influx of Bay State expats as well as in Colorado and North Carolina.
Okay, if you want to stay up later and confirm Kentucky’s early prognostications, here’s what else to look for tonight:
1900 Eastern. Virginia’s polls close. If the race is not immediately called for Mark Warner, that’s a bad sign for Democrats. It’s hard to imagine the polls being that wrong in the Old Dominion, but this is one of two states where a Republican shocker could occur. It’s a very small chance, but it’s not zero. If it does happen, this election is on par with a 1980, 1994, or 2006 tectonic shift.
1900 Eastern. Georgia’s polls close. If the polls are accurate, Perdue will be leading Nunn and should be flirting with 50% of the vote. If he is easily clearing 50%, that’s a bad sign for North Carolina. If he is having trouble beating Nunn, that’s a good sign for Democrats in North Carolina, and bad sign for Republicans in January when the runoff would occur.
1930 Eastern. North Carolina’s polls close. Expect it to stay close for hours. If it isn’t close, that’s a good sign for the winning party nationwide. If Democrats lose North Carolina, they almost certainly lose the Senate. In fact, it’s almost certain that if they lose North Carolina, they lose Georgia too and have a chance at picking off only one state: Kansas.
1930 Eastern. West Virginia’s polls close. The Mountain State’s 2nd and 3rd Congressional districts are too close to call. But if it is a good Republican night, they should win both.
2000 Eastern. The big prize is New Hampshire. Like North Carolina, expect it to stay close for hours. If Shaheen wins handily, this is a potential good sign for Democrats in Alaska and Colorado, two other tossup states with libertarian streaks. If Shaheen loses, it’s inconceivable that there is a path that allows Democrats to retain the Senate. In fact, if they lose the Granite State, it’s almost inconceivable that Democrats could hold more than 46 seats by the time the runoffs are over.
2030 Eastern. Arkansas closes. The calls should go almost immediately to Tom Cotton and Asa Hutchinson. If a half hour passes without a declared winner, Republicans are in for a long night. Republicans should also see the retention of two House seats in Arkansas. If they do, then not only are they cementing their control of a once very blue state, they will remove two of only ten realistic pickup opportunities for the Democrats and will stand a better chance of double-digit gains in the House.
2100 Eastern. Colorado and Kansas are the big prizes this hour. They are also two of the hardest to predict. Colorado has given pollsters fits before. And in the Sunflower State, the big question is whether on election day Kansans will return to their Republican roots. Since Colorado has mail-in voting, vote-counting could take hours (even days, if it’s close). So Kansas will probably be the first known result of the two. If Pat Roberts holds on to win, Democrats have to win too many states they are currently expected to lose. If Roberts and Brownback win, Democrats will get a double punch to the gut.
2100 Eastern. Louisiana’s polls close. We won’t know the outcome, but if Mary Landrieu exceeds 46% or if she falls short of 41%, we’ll have a pretty good clue about what the eventual December result will be.
2100 Eastern. Michigan’s polls close in the western part of the Upper Peninsula one hour after they close in the vastly more populated rest of the state. Gov. Rick Snyder is ahead–even in most of the Democratic-leaning polls. But he’s not ahead by much. Still, with an hour to count ballots in the Lower Peninsula, we should have a call soon after the Yoopers are done voting. A win by Snyder is good news for Detroit, but don’t expect Detroiters to take it that way. Additionally, Dan Benishek is fighting to retain his seat in the UP. If he holds on, it’s another seat Democrats can’t pick up. If Snyder loses, that indicates that blacks turned out at higher than expected amounts and that Obama still has coattails with at least one demographic.
2100 Eastern. Wisconsin is hosting what probably is the most closely watched gubernatorial election tonight. Scott Walker looks to be opening up a lead over Mary Burke. If he wins handily in the face of the shit-storm that’s been thrown at him, it is very bad news for progressives and public employee unions nationwide. If he beats the RCP spread of just over 2 points, it’s a good sign for GOP candidates in two neighboring congressional districts in Iowa and Minnesota that share media markets with the Badger State. It’s also a good sign for him in 2016.
2100 Eastern. The shocker of the night would be a GOP senate win in New Mexico. If it does happen, it will be a result of the coattails of Gov. Susana Martinez, who immediately will become a top-level presidential prospect.
2200 Eastern. Iowa. If Republicans are having a good night, when the Hawkeye State is called, it may be their 51st seat. Watch the House seats here too. With a dismal gubernatorial nominee, and a lacklustre Bruce Braley pulling down the ticket, Republicans will win three seats here if it is a good night. A Braley win and the retention of only the 4th Congressional district probably means that Republicans won’t take the senate and will gain only a disappointing three to six seats in the House.
2200 Eastern. Nevada. Watch the 4th district. It wasn’t even on anyone’s radar as recently as two weeks ago. However, early voting looks to be so dismal for Democrats in the Silver State, that a solid blue seat might be in play. I expect Democrat Steven Horsford to hold on. But if he does not, then neither will Harry Reid hold on to his leadership of the Democratic Party in the Senate.
0100 Eastern. Alaska. We won’t know the results there until muchlater. So hopefully, Republicans will already have won 51 seats by then and we can all go to bed.