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12 House races to watch to judge size of a GOP ‘wave’

Midterm elections upon us, most observers expect Republicans to take over the House of Representatives, though projections vary widely as to how many seats they’ll gain, and a massive number of races — more than 100 — are close enough to go eithe

Midterm elections upon us, most observers expect Republicans to take over the House of Representatives, though projections vary widely as to how many seats they’ll gain, and a massive number of races — more than 100 — are close enough to go either way. The magic number Republicans need to gain to take control: 39.

So how can an Election Night observer get a sense of the big picture amid the many returns coming in? Rather than zeroing in on any individual race, look for trends in those expected to be closest. Here are a handful of races to keep an eye on in the states with early-closing polls.

1. Indiana’s Ninth

This is the quintessential swing race in a state with the earliest-closing polls. The polls have been extremely close, slightly favoring Republican challenger Todd Young over incumbent Democrat Baron Hill. If voters go for Mr. Young — and especially if he wins decisively — it’s a good first sign that Republicans are apt to have a good night.

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The district itself is an odd amalgam of liberal (the university town of Bloomington) and conservative (the more rural and suburban areas), and Congressman Hill has done well in past years by leaning to the right. This time around, Young has attacked him heavily over his support for Obama programs like health care and the stimulus, and has accused him of favoring China over Indiana — a big concern for the one-third of voters who are blue-collar workers.

Also in Indiana: Keep an eye on Indiana’s Second District, where Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly has a slightly better shot at retaining his seat. If Mr. Donnelly loses as well, it’s a bad sign for Democrats going into the rest of the night.

2. South Carolina’s Fifth

The fact that this seat is in play, after 14 terms of representation by John Spratt, is a bad sign for Democrats.

In 2008, Congressman Spratt, a conservative Democrat, won reelection by 25 percentage points. A Republican hasn’t won in this district since 1882. But Spratt’s opponent, Mick Mulvaney, is narrowly favored to win.

The demographics of Spratt’s district have been changing, and he has held on to his seat largely out of loyalty. This year, with the pervasive anti-incumbent sentiment, that seems an uphill battle.

Still, if Spratt does manage to hang onto his seat – or even if he barely loses – it may be a sign that the Democrats are going to have a better night than expected. South Carolina polls close at 7 p.m. Eastern time.

3. Georgia’s Second

Democratic incumbent Sanford Bishop – a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and conservative Blue Dog Democrats – has represented the district since 1993 and usually wins easy reelection.

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But now, the polling site Real Clear Politics has moved this seat to “leans Republican” (though the other major polling sites still categorize it as a toss-up).

His Republican opponent, state Rep. Mike McKeown, has hit Congressman Bishop hard for his support of unpopular bills such as health-care reform, cap and trade for carbon emissions, and the economic stimulus law.

If Bishop manages to hang onto the seat, that’s a good sign for Democrats. Also keep an eye on Georgia’s Eighth District, where Republicans are favored to pick up a seat, and the 12th, where Democrats hope to keep it. A win by the opposite party in either district would be a strong signal of how the night is going to look.

Polls in Georgia close at 7 p.m. Eastern time.

4. Florida’s 22nd

Another close race to watch in the 7 p.m. states, Florida’s 22nd District leans slightly Democratic, but incumbent Ron Klein (D) faces an uphill battle for reelection.

His votes in favor of health-care reform may hurt him in the eyes of retired voters, and some polls now predict that his Republican opponent, retired Army Lt. Col. Allen West, has the edge.

Mr. West narrowly lost to Congressman Klein in 2008, and this time around he has outperformed him in fundraising.

If Klein can hold on in this race – still considered a toss-up by most pollsters – it’s a good sign for Democrats, but if it’s one of many similarly close races that go to Republicans, it’s a strong indicator that the GOP is on track to take control of the House by a big margin.

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Also keep an eye on Florida’s Eighth, 24th, and 25th districts, all of which are close but currently favor Republicans. The 25th is one of the few GOP-held seats that Democrats have a chance of picking up.

5. West Virginia’s First

People will be looking closely at the outcome of West Virginia’s Senate race, but the state – where the polls close at 7:30 p.m. – also has a couple of close congressional races.

In particular, the race in the First District has dynamics very similar to those in the Senate race.

The Democratic candidate, Mike Oliverio, is conservative (as is Gov. Joe Manchin, the conservative Democratic Senate candidate) and won the primary in an upset, beating 14-term incumbent Alan Mollohan.

The majority of the district’s voters still consider themselves Democrats – and have a historical dislike of the Republican Party – but are conservative when it comes to political beliefs. They are not at all fans of President Obama.

The race is a toss-up, though given the dynamics at play, Republican David McKinley probably has a slight edge. If Republicans win it, they’re on track to do at least as well as expected; if they also win in West Virginia’s Third District, where the Democrat is still favored, it’s a sign of a very strong Republican wave.

6. North Carolina’s Eighth

Another state with a 7:30 poll-closing time, North Carolina has several races to watch, but the Eighth is the closest.

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Democratic incumbent Larry Kissel has held the seat for only one term – prevailing in 2008 in part because of redistricting and demographic changes that helped Democrats. The Eighth is no longer the reliably Republican district it used to be.

Congressman Kissel also has a fairly conservative voting record – opposing both health-care reform and cap-and-trade bills – but is facing strong anti-incumbent sentiment, and it’s not clear that he’ll be able to keep his seat from going to Harold Johnson, a longtime local sportscaster.

Also keep an eye on North Carolina’s Second District – which was favored for Democrats until recently, and now seems a seat that Republicans are likely to take over – and its Seventh and 11th. If Republicans can win those Democratic-favored seats, it’s likely to be a very bad night for Democrats.

7. Ohio’s Sixth

Ohio, where the polls close at 7:30, is filled with races to watch. Its Sixth District, held by Democrat Charlie Wilson, is yet another example of a moderate-to-conservative district in which a Democratic incumbent has gotten in trouble by voting for too many unpopular Democratic bills.

It’s still a tossup – and without a lot of polling, it’s hard to know who has the upper hand – but it seems likely that Republican challenger Bill Johnson might pick up this seat.

Other races to keep an eye on in Ohio: the First, 15th, and 16th, all of which Republicans are more likely to win (and if they don’t, it’s a good sign for Democrats). The 18th is a tossup where Democrats might have a slightly better chance.

The 13th and 10th lean Democratic and are also worth watching. If Republicans win in either of those two, it’s another very bad sign for Democrats.

8. Illinois’ 14th

Illinois is a normally blue state that this election suddenly seems on the fence, with a Senate and gubernatorial race that may well go to Republicans, and it has a number of close House races.

The 14th District, in Chicago’s western suburbs, had been reliably Republican until recently – a sign of shifting voting patterns in suburban Chicago – and conservative Democrat Bill Foster has held the seat since 2007. It was a big coup for Democrats at the time, since he took over the seat of former House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

Congressman Foster is a moderate, but his challenger, state Sen. Randy Hultgren, has attacked him for voting for health-care reform and being in lockstep with the Democratic leadership. Recent polls don’t look good for Foster, and it seems likely Mr. Hultgren will win.

As with Illinois’ 11th and 17th Districts, this is a seat that seems likely to go to Republicans, but where a Foster victory would signal a better-than-expected night for Democrats. A Republican victory in the Eighth, meanwhile, where Democratic Rep. Melissa Bean is favored, is likely only as part of a sizeable Republican wave. And Illinois has one of the few GOP-held seats (Illinois 10th) that Democrats have a chance of picking off.

Polls close here at 8 p.m. Eastern time.

9. South Dakota’s First

South Dakota’s at-large district is emblematic of the problems that so many Democrats – even moderate ones – in conservative districts are facing this election, and why so many of them look likely to lose.

Democratic incumbent Stephanie Herseth Sandlin has been a leader with the Blue Dog Democrats and has a fairly conservative voting record, voting against health-care reform and other Obama administration bills. But she’s in trouble, and her opponent, Kristi Noem – the “Sarah Palin of South Dakota,” a farmer and a state representative – seems poised to win.

The election is still a toss-up according to many pollsters, and its outcome will be a good indication of how Democrats may fare in the many similar races around the country.

South Dakota polls close at 8 p.m.

10. Pennsylvania’s 11th

Pennsylvania’s 11th is another district in which a long-time Democratic incumbent (Paul Kanjorski, who has represented the district since 1985) is in danger. Congressman Kanjorski has faced the same opponent – Hazelton, Pa., Mayor Lou Barletta – twice before, and beat him by just four points in 2008.

Mr. Barletta has attacked Kanjorski for his votes on health-care reform and TARP, and Real Clear Politics has him favored to win in this largely blue-collar district.

Still, Kanjorski has outraised and outspent him, and has attacked his tenure as mayor and suggested to voters that he might vote to slash Social Security benefits.

If Kanjorski can hang onto his seat – a distinct possibility – it could be a harbinger of a better-than-expected night for Democrats.

Also keep an eye on the state’s Seventh, Eighth, and 10th, which are close races in which the Republican candidate has a leg up, and the 12th, in which the Democrat is favored to keep his seat.

Pennsylvania’s polls close at 8 p.m.

11. Missouri’s Fourth

Ike Skelton, the Democratic congressman in this rural, conservative district, has been in Congress for 17 terms and represents one of the last of a dying breed, often referred to as a Truman Democrat. Indeed, he represents President Truman’s old district.

Economically liberal, socially conservative, and hawkish on defense, Congressman Skelton has managed to hang on in a Republican district for 34 years.

This time around, he’s being hammered for his support of cap-and-trade legislation and the economic stimulus package, though he broke ranks with Democrats to oppose health-care reform.

His opponent, Vicky Hartzler, has the backing of Sarah Palin and the tea party. She’s a social conservative who was the state spokeswoman for the Coalition to Protect Marriage.

This is a district that will almost certainly go Republican if Skelton were to leave, and it’s going to be a hard fight for him to retain his seat this year – despite a large fundraising advantage.

Polls in Missouri close at 8 p.m. Eastern.

12. Massachusetts’ 10th

Among Massachusetts congressional districts – all represented by Democrats – this is the only one with a strong chance of going Republican.

The district includes the South Shore and Cape Cod, and gave Republican Sen. Scott Brown 60 percent of the vote in January’s special election.

Every past effort to elect a Republican here since 1970 has failed, but this time around Republican Jeff Perry has a decent shot.

The race is considered a tossup, though Democrat Bill Keating – also running for the first time – has a slight edge.

In a strong Republican wave, Mr. Perry has a good shot of winning.

Though unlikely to be Republican victories, also keep an eye on the Fourth and Sixth Districts. That the Fourth, Barney Frank’s district, is in any danger is a sign of just how embattled Democrats are this year.

Massachusetts polls close at 8 p.m. Eastern.