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5 Questions for Election Night

At just about this point in every election cycle, we begin to overuse the same words, phrases and arguments. Everything is a tossup, or a dead heat, or a last-minute dash to Election Day. The other guy is always going to shut down Social Security. Taxes are evil. President Obama (or President Bush) and Speaker Pelosi (or Speaker Gingrich) are driving us all to ruin.

If you are reading this you’ll probably recall that you have heard these very things spill from my lips during the last several weeks. Without hesitation, I plead guilty.

But really, it’s different this time. That’s because, in so many races, it is a tossup and economic security is driving the election map. And somebody has to get the blame.

Consider this amazing year. According to The New York Times’ interactive map, a whopping 109 House seats are in play, and 42 are tossups. Republicans need only 39 seats to gain the majority, and – barring major polling meltdowns from coast to coast – I can’t find a living prognosticator who thinks they will fall short.

On the Senate side, things look considerably brighter for Democrats, in part because the map is not so scrambled. Nineteen seats are in play, and only seven are tossups. But the tossups – involving incumbents from Majority Leader Harry Reid to three-term Washington state Sen. Patty Murray — are doozies.

So we can be forgiven for cliché in these final days. There are so many questions Tuesday’s voting could begin to answer.

These are the ones I’ll be crunching the numbers for.

1. Who’s voting? Finally we will be able to figure out the meaning of one cycle’s most overused terms — “enthusiasm gap.” Anecdotally, Republicans and angry Independents seem to be far more anxious to get to the polls this year than Democrats are. In response, Democrats have been trying to knock this theory down by producing numbers that show they are casting early ballots in greater numbers than Republicans. The only problem with that? The early-voting Democrats could well be voting for Republicans.

2. Whither Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi? Pelosi will most certainly be reelected, but she may have to lose the corner office with the balcony and fireplace. Reid’s future is far less certain. Probably the most suspenseful story Tuesday night will be whether he meets the political fate of defeated Democrats Tom Foley and Tom Daschle, who both fell victim to well-funded national campaigns to drive them from office.

3. How many of the outsiders will win, and what happens once they win? At this writing, Kentucky’s Rand Paul, Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey and Florida’s Marco Rubio are the Washington newcomers best-positioned to win Senate seats. But Colorado’s Ken Buck, Illinois’ Mark Kirk and Washington state’s Dino Rossi could be coming to the Senate too. Of the six, only Buck and Rossi would be unseating Democratic incumbents.

Still, the U.S. Senate is not an institution that is particularly generous when it comes to newcomers, especially ones who have already graced the cover of Time. Irony of ironies, in order to flourish under the Capitol dome, they may well have to model two Democrats who also arrived in the Senate as stars – Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Both assumed the role of meek freshman – at least until their presidential exploratory committees were launched.

4. Where will the cash make the difference? Meg Whitman spent more than $150 million trying to get elected governor of California. American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS – two much-discussed Republican independent expenditure groups – have spent more than $36.5 million salting money in races across the country. The U.S Chamber of Commerce, the big labor unions and the national party committees did much the same. In the end, so what? I’d love to know.

5. Finally, what will we learn about the power of Sarah Palin and various tea party groups who have commanded center stage this year? Palin, in particular, remains an object of political fascination more than a year after leaving office. I was never sure she really wanted to run for president, but now I am wavering. The latest evidence: an interview she gave to Mary Hart at “Entertainment Tonight.” “If there’s nobody else to do it,” she said. “Then of course I would believe that we should do this.” (Hear that, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee?)

(Before you scoff that Palin said this to Mary Hart, remember that President Obama spent Wednesday defending his record to Jon Stewart)

I have many, many more questions. But I want to save some of the suspense for Tuesday night. See you there!

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the Washington Week website. Click here for the list of guests on this Friday’s roundtable.

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