Why we almost certainly won't know Senate control on election night

With so many races so close, we'll likely have to wait to see which party will control the chamber

Published October 31, 2014 1:09PM (EDT)

For several months, polls in Louisiana and Georgia, where Senate candidates must win an outright majority of votes on Election Day to avoid runoffs, have pointed to a second round of balloting in the two states. With Louisiana's runoff slated for December 6 and Georgia's not scheduled until January 6, the likelihood of runoffs in both states raises the possibility that Senate control won't be determined for another two months. Still, with 10 Democratic-held seats either fiercely competitive or likely to switch to the Republicans, the GOP could easily net the six seats it needs to retake the chamber without having to wait on runoff results in Louisiana and Georgia. But don't bet on an election night victory for the party; with so many races so close and several campaigns already preparing for recounts, we're unlikely to know Senate control four days from now.

Consider the remarkable number of races that remain tossups at this late stage. According to RealClearPolitics' polling averages, less than three points separate the candidates in Alaska, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Kansas, Georgia, and Iowa. Moreover, based on pollsters' recent history of overestimating GOP strength and underestimating Hispanic turnout, there's reason to believe that the Colorado Senate race is even closer than the 3.6 point edge held by Republican Cory Gardner over Democratic Sen. Mark Udall suggests. The razor-thin margins that separate the candidates in these contests all but ensure that at a clear victor won't emerge in at least one or two of them on election night. Accordingly, some candidates, including Iowa GOPer Joni Ernst and Republican Thom Tillis and Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan in North Carolina, are gearing up for weeks-long legal battles.

Meanwhile, up in Alaska, where Democratic Sen. Mark Begich appears to be making something of a comeback, the state's time lag and relatively slow vote-counting process mean that a winner probably won't be declared until November 5 at the earliest. In 2008, Begich wasn't proclaimed the winner of his race against Sen. Ted Stevens until two weeks after Election Day. Though polls suggested Begich was headed to an easy victory, he ultimately only won by a point. Observers expect the Democrat's race against Republican Dan Sullivan this year to be similarly close.

Add it all up, and it's increasingly clear that political junkies hoping for a firm Senate result next Tuesday night will probably find themselves disappointed. At this point, the likeliest scenario for a definitive election night answer is a GOP wave. If Republican Scott Brown knocks off Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire early Tuesday night, for instance, that portends an excellent night for the Republicans and substantially increases the odds that the GOP will have 51 Senate seats in its column by the end of the night. Despite polls indicating a tightening race, however, Brown's ceiling of support appears to be roughly 48 percent, and a new survey showing Shaheen with an eight point lead underscores the likelihood that she'll ultimately hold on.

So fasten your seat belts -- it could be a bumpy few weeks.

By Luke Brinker

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