Politics & Government

Election night confidential: 7 questions to answer

Tuesday marks the end of the most expensive U.S. Senate campaign in American history – and one of the nastiest.

The more than $100 million race between Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan and Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis has pitched more than 100,000 TV ads into North Carolina living rooms.

But the outcome, which could help determine control of the U.S. Senate, isn’t the election’s only drama. Here are seven questions that will be answered Tuesday.

Will Republicans ride a wave?

Most forecasting models favor Republicans to win control of the Senate. North Carolina will offer an early clue as to whether there’s a GOP “wave,” and if so, how big.

It’s one of the first key races where results should be announced. Polls in North Carolina and New Hampshire close at 7:30 p.m.

Democratic incumbents Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire and Kay Hagan in North Carolina each face a tough challenge. The results of those races could offer a clue about which way the night will go.

“If Republicans pick up the Senate seat in North Carolina, Democrats are in for a long night and the loss of their majority in the Senate,” said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the Cook Political Report.

A Libertarian spoiler?

As a Libertarian, Sean Haugh hasn’t gotten a lot of respect. One recent poll didn’t even include his name.

But Haugh, who was polling at 7 percent in an NBC/Marist poll last week, could be a spoiler in the race between Hagan and Tillis. At least their supporters seem to think so.

A conservative nonprofit called The American Future Fund has run ads online aimed at a distinctly liberal audience. “Sean Haugh thinks pollution is a crime,” reads one banner ad. A video included the line, “more weed, less war.”

But mailing from the other side touted Haugh as “a principled conservative” and unlike Thom Tillis, he favored lower taxes.

“It feels like all advertising now is for my campaign,” Haugh says. “Even the negative back and forth between my opponents is giving people every reason to vote for me.”

Will turnout machines stay in high gear?

Hard work and sophisticated targeting helped both parties turn out nearly 1.2 million people in early voting. Will they be able to keep their machines running on Tuesday?

Both sides are gearing their turnout efforts toward Election Day.

“The amount of time, energy, money and resources to improve our ground game in this state vastly surpasses what we’ve done in previous years,” said state GOP spokesman Will Allison. “It’s key to us to continue that push through Election Day as well.”

Democrats, who turned out more of their voters so far, don’t plan to let up on the gas.

Forty-eight percent of people who voted early were Democrats, according to the state elections board, while 32 percent were Republican.

Democratic spokesman Ben Ray said his analysis shows that 183,523 people who were eligible to cast ballots in 2010 and did not, have already voted – and over half were Democrats.

“It’s a sign that our ground game is working,” he says. “We think we’re going to get an electorate that’s representative of the state, … and we think it’s an electorate that going to put us in position to win.”

How far will Vince Coakley’s name and money take him?

No Republican has ever been more than a foil for the Democratic candidate in the 12th Congressional District. But no Republican has had the recognition or war chest of Vince Coakley.

Coakley is a former WSOC-TV anchor who later had an afternoon radio show on Charlotte’s WBT-AM. He’s also raised $320,000, more than any Republican has ever done in the district that runs from Charlotte to Greensboro.

None of that may help in a district where Republicans make up only 16 percent of registered voters, and where Democrat Alma Adams has had a war chest of $683,000. But Coakley said he’s encouraged.

“The bottom line is in every election, we’re voting for a person,” he said. “A lot of people know who I am, and they’ve recognized the authenticity of who I am as a person, and they’re willing to look beyond political labels.”

Will voters get to the bottom of the ballot?

This is North Carolina’s first general election since 1925 with no straight-ticket voting, which the Republican-controlled General Assembly voted last year to end.

A lot of people in both parties took advantage of it. In Mecklenburg County, 117,550 voters punched a straight ticket in 2010. Nearly 56 percent were Democrats; 44 percent were Republicans.

With dozens of down-ballot races, the absence of straight-ticket voting could affect outcomes by reducing the number of votes cast for them.

Nowhere may the drop-off be higher than with some of the nonpartisan judicial races. Four years ago, 227,203 county voters cast a ballot in the Senate race. One appeals court race saw only 145,496 votes in the county, a drop-off of 36 percent.

Elections director Michael Dickerson said county voting machines at least make voters go through every race before they push the button.

“The good thing with our ballot is you have to see everything before you can cast your ballot,” he said.

What will be the fallout from commissioners vote?

Given voting patterns, Democrats are likely to keep control of the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners. But the results of the at-large race could shake up the board.

Three Democrats and two Republicans are vying for the three at-large seats. With the six districts expected to stay split between the parties, the at-large race will determine which party controls the board and the order of the at-large finishers could decide which Democratic commissioner sits in the center of the dais.

Two incumbents, Chairman Trevor Fuller and former Chairwoman Pat Cotham, face two Republican newcomers and Democrat Ella Scarborough, a former Charlotte City Council member.

The top vote-getter could have the edge to become the new chairman.

Will anti-toll sentiment make a difference in Mecklenburg vote?

Vallee Bubak is a lifelong Republican and a founder of a group called Lake Norman Conservatives. But Tuesday she’ll be handing out material for Democrat Natasha Marcus.

That’s because Bubak is a strong opponent of the planned toll lanes to Interstate 77 and the politicians – especially Republicans – she blames for pushing them.

Conservatives such as Bubak don’t plan to vote for Thom Tillis or the Republican running for his north Mecklenburg seat in the 98th N.C. House District, John Bradford III.

But the question is, how many people like her will turn out and vote against their own party? And what could that do to Republican showings, especially in Mecklenburg?

Tillis and Bradford supporters insist the rogue Republicans are just that, and that most, even toll critics, will stick with their candidates.

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