For those who'll turn on cable news at 8 p.m. and keep watching until falling asleep to the sounds of Barbara Boxer addressing her supporters in California, there will be more than one story line filling vacant hours. In Massachusetts, the drama will come down to one question: Did Scott Brown's election as senator fundamentally alter the state, opening the door to other GOP victories? Certainly, the Republicans have made stronger-than-usual runs for a range of offices. But if they can't get the governorship and/or a House seat or two in this year of the angry voter, they will have to wonder if they'll ever be able to break through.
While awaiting the resolution of the Massachusetts equation, here is a thumbnail guide to some of the national dramas worthy of attention, some of which have gotten a lot of attention, and some of which haven't.
1. BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE — Republicans are expected to win the 38 seats necessary for control of the House, ousting Nancy Pelosi as speaker. It's not absolutely certain, of course, but most poll-crunchers believe the GOP will gain considerably more than 38 seats. Unlike in the Senate, where rules give significant power to the minority party, the majority maintains iron control in the House.
But the size of the majority will help determine the agenda for the next two years. If the Republicans gain 50 or more seats, they'll have enough of a margin (ruling the House by 12 or more) to enact a strongly conservative agenda — probably including a repeal, at least in part, of the health care reform bill. If their margin is smaller, however, Republican moderates will be able to exert significant power on the leaders, insisting on a more centrist agenda. That would be far more to the liking of President Obama. So the size of the GOP victory could be almost as important as the question of whether the Republicans will win the majority at all. It should be clear whether the Republicans are making sufficient gains to take over the House by 10 p.m., but the dimensions of the victory won't be known until midnight, or possibly later.
2. SENATORIAL PRIVILEGE — A GOP takeover of the majority is less likely, but speculation about this will nonetheless dominate much of the TV analysis. The conventional wisdom is that there are six true toss-ups, of which the Democrats will need to win only two to maintain control of the Senate: West Virginia, Illinois, Colorado, Washington, Nevada, and Pennsylvania. The likeliest Democratic victories will be in angry West Virginia, where popular Democratic Governor Joe Manchin is trying to demonstrate enough independence from Obama to hold off Republican businessman John Raese, and traditionally blue-state Washington, where incumbent Patti Murray has a very slim lead over perennial GOP challenger Dino Rossi.
A West Virginia result could come early in the evening, and if Raese wins, expect a very bad night for the Democrats. But if Democratic congressman and retired Admiral Joe Sestak beats ex-GOP congressman Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania — another early-reporting state — the Republicans will have a very hard time winning enough seats to set the agenda in the Senate.
3. GRANITE STATE BLUES — OR REDS — In recent election cycles, New Hampshire has often gone all for one party or all for another. After suddenly emerging as a Democratic stronghold in 2006 and 2008, Republicans are ready to reclaim the Granite State as all theirs. Their Senate candidate, Kelly Ayotte, is a strong favorite, as is Manchester Mayor Frank Giunta in his attempt to defeat District 1 Representative Carol Shea-Porter. But the Democrats could hold onto the governorship, where John Lynch is running for a fourth two-year term, and their nominee for the open seat in District 2, Annie Kuster, is ahead in some polls over former GOP Representative Charlie Bass.
A Kuster win, which could be announced early, would raise questions about whether voters' anger is strictly anti-Democratic or more anti-incumbent. Kuster is in many respects a liberal in the Obama mold, but she has successfully portrayed herself as a political outsider compared to Bass.
4. FUTURE PRESIDENTS — For a large, vibrant state, Florida has often opted for colorless politicians. Its current senatorial duo, Bill Nelson and George LeMieux, are arguably the most obscure of any delegation. But suddenly, strategically important Florida is poised to vault not one but two of its statewide victors into the front ranks of national politics. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American Republican wunderkind, is a unique figure — a charismatic leader who is equally adept at back-room legislative dealmaking. At 39, he's already a former speaker of the Florida House and a strong favorite to be elected senator. With the GOP struggling nationally among Latino voters because of its hard-edged approach to immigration, Rubio would be an appealing complement to any of the 2012 Republican presidential contenders.
Meanwhile, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink is polling slightly ahead of her conservative GOP rival, Bill Scott, a businessman with a checkered career. With her down-to-earth yet assertive manner, the Asian-American Sink is a Democratic answer to Sarah Palin and other "mama grizzly" Republicans. Winning the Florida governorship against a strong GOP tide would make her an instant Democratic hero.
5. OBAMALAND NO MORE — Remember how President Obama was going to change the electoral map, turning traditional red states like Indiana, Virginia, and North Carolina a bright Democratic blue? Well, guess which states are now poised for major Republican gains? A GOP takeover of the Democratic seat held by Indiana's retiring senator Evan Bayh is assured, and the once-vulnerable Republican senator in North Carolina, Richard Burr, is looking quite safe. With the GOP counting on House gains in Virginia, it could be that all three states — won by Obama on a tide of time-for-a-change optimism in 2008 — could go back to the Republicans, thanks to some time-for-a-change pessimism in 2010.
6. BROWNIE, YOU'VE HAD A HECKUVA CAREER — Twenty-eight years after leaving the California governorship, Democrat Jerry Brown is the favorite to reclaim his old job. What's astonishing about the 72-year-old Brown is not that he could mount a late-in-life comeback, but the way he did it: He started on the bottom, fighting to become mayor of Oakland, then running for attorney general and now governor. Essentially, he's had two full careers, three decades apart from each other.
There is no obvious parallel to Brown's accomplishment, even in much smaller states. To have reached California's political mountaintop twice is deeply impressive, even if he had a leg up in his initial journey by being the son of a former governor. While Brown is ahead in most polls, his Republican challenger, eBay founder Meg Whitman, would be a significant victor in her own right. A protege of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, a Governor Whitman would be in a strong position to help her mentor claim the GOP presidential nomination in 2012.
7. PALIN VERSUS THE MURKOWSKIS — For those trying to gauge Sarah Palin's impact, the ultimate verdict probably won't be available until after all the TV sets are shut off. Yes, a victory for the Palinesque Christine O'Donnell in Delaware would be a stunner, but that's not likely to happen. And a Sharron Angle win over Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada would probably say more about Reid and the terrible Nevada economy than Palin.
But in her home state of Alaska, Palin has cut her teeth in bedeviling the state's leading Republican family, the Murkowskis. Palin came out of nowhere to whip Frank Murkowski, a longtime senator, for the state's governorship, and then, this year, she backed the obscure Joe Miller, who promptly clocked Frank's daughter Lisa Murkowski for the GOP Senate nomination. Two points for Palin. Except that Lisa Murkowski is now mounting a surprisingly effective write-in campaign against Miller, and stands a decent chance of winning. A Murkowski victory would put Palin's archrival back in the center of national politics, and cast doubt on her clout in her own state.