Three states may keep us guessing about midterm results after elections

Rand Paul, the son of Rep. Ron Paul, defeated opponent Trey Grayson in the Kentucky Republican Senate primary on May 18.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 26, 2010; 10:26 PM

Everyone agrees that the House majority will be in play 36 days from now. But what if we don't know who won the House on Nov. 2 - or even Nov. 3 or Nov. 5?

It's a very real possibility, given the heavy use of voting via mail in at least three West Coast states: California, Oregon and Washington.

Oregon conducts its election entirely via mail , and any mail-in votes received before 11 p.m. Eastern time on Election Day will be counted. In California, registered voters have until Oct. 26 to request a mail ballot.

In Washington, a state that votes almost entirely by mail, ballots need only be postmarked by Election Day - making for very long nights (and usually many days) of counting ballots.

(Longtime Seattle Post-Intelligencer political reporter Joel Connelly wrote a column in November 2009 that painted a hypothetical scenario in which the 2012 presidential election between President Obama and Mitt Romney hangs in the balance as the nation waits for Washington state to count. "Hanging chads on Florida ballots have been replaced by Washington's hanging returns," he predicted.)

Those three states have a multitude of competitive House races on the ballot this fall. With political handicappers suggesting that Republicans will be right around the 39-seat gain they need to retake control of the chamber, every contest will count - albeit some more slowly than others.

In California, Democratic Reps. Jerry McNerney, Loretta Sanchez and Jim Costa are being targeted by national Republicans, with McNerney considered the most endangered. Sanchez, however, did herself no favors last week when she told Univision in an interview that "the Vietnamese and the Republicans are, with an intensity, trying to take this seat from which we have done so much for our community." Sanchez, who is Hispanic, is running against state Assemblyman Van Tran, a Vietnamese American.

Chris Lehane, a longtime California-based Democratic strategist, argued that the propensity of voting by mail in the Golden State isn't all bad, as it allows the two parties an early look at where the votes are coming from and where they are needed most. "Vote-by-mail allows you to know what is going to happen in advance," he said.

In Oregon, which has been trending Democratic for the past several cycles, there is a targeted race in Rep. Kurt Schrader's 5th District, where state Rep. Scott Bruun is running on the Republican side. Barack Obama carried the seat by double digits in 2008, but George W. Bush won it in both of his presidential elections.

Washington could be a real battleground, with competitive contests in the 2nd, 3rd and possibly the 8th districts. The 3rd District is the marquee contest in the state, a seat left open by Democratic Rep. Brian Baird's retirement. In a district twice carried by Bush, Republicans nominated state Rep. Jamie Herrera while Democrats picked former state House speaker Denny Heck. In Washington's 8th District, Democrats still hold some hope of beating Rep. Dave Reichert, although the GOP lean of the year makes that less likely than in 2006 or 2008.

The 2nd District race - a rematch of the 2000 open-seat contest between Rep. Rick Larsen (D) and John Koster (R) - has already shown the potential hazards of Washington's vote-by-mail system. On primary day - Aug. 17 - Larsen held a steady lead. But as votes kept arriving, Koster gained. Koster pulled ahead a week after the vote and stayed there. The results were ultimately immaterial - Washington has a "top two" primary, meaning that Koster and Larsen were guaranteed to advance to the general election regardless of who won more votes - but were a potential omen of what awaits in November.

Arizona and Colorado also cast a majority of their votes by mail and there are no fewer than half a dozen targeted House seats in the two states.

The battle for House control is likely to be very close, and Democrats have become more confident in the past several weeks that they may be able to hold on to the chamber narrowly. If it's that close, the country will be looking to the West Coast for the deciding races. And if history is any guide, we could be waiting for quite a while.

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