Ultimately, elections come down to numbers.
So here are the numbers to keep in mind tonight:
TWO HUNDRED AND EIGHTEEN (218)
For all the talk about waves, landslides and tsunamis, the only number that really matters with regard to the fight for control of the US House of Representatives is 218. That’s a majority of the 435 seats that will be chosen today, and with it Republicans get the speakership and control of all the committees. Unlike the Senate, the House rules empower the majority at just about every turn. This gives the eerily tanned John Boehner the speakership, puts Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan (the author of the "Roadmap for America’s Future" plan to begin privatizing Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) in charge of the House Budget Committee and California Congressman Darrell Issa ("We have to say to the Tea Party: You’re not strident enough, you’re not angry enough…") in charge of the Committee on Oversight and Reform. Issa will have the power to dog the Obama administration on every front with investigations, inquiries and hearings. And he will use it—whether his party has a one-seat majority or a fifty-seat majority.
TWO-HUNDRED AND THIRTY-THREE (233)
To get a majority, Republicans need only 218 seats. To rival the historic win of 1994, when Newt Gingrich’s "Republican Revolution" gained fifty-four seats and a claim on a mandate, the GPO must get to 233 this year. If Republicans fall short of that figure, Democrats get some space to make a comforting "it-wasn’t-so-bad" argument. If Republicans gain fifty-five seats or more, you won’t hear any talk about this being a divided country. They will resurrect the old claim that "this is a center-right country." And they might drop the word "center" this time. But before they get going, it might be valuable to note that there have been significantly bigger midterm shifts: a fifty-five-seat pick-up Republican pickup in 1946, an eighty-one-seat pick-up for Republicans (from Democrats, Progressives and Farmer-Laborites) in 1938. Notably, in the presidential elections that followed each of these major shifts to the Republicans, Democrats (Bill Clinton in 1996, Harry Truman in 1948 and Franklin Roosevelt in 1940) won.
The number to watch in the Senate competition is 50. If Republicans surf a major wave and win fifty seats—an unlikely but numerically possible prospect—the Senate will become a political chamber of horrors for both parties.
Republicans will put huge pressure on Connecticut Independent-Democrat Joe Lieberman and Nebraska Sort-of-Democrat Ben Nelson to switch parties. Pressure might also be applied to the last of the southern Democratic senators: Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu and Arkansan Mark Pryor.
If the Democratic caucus holds together, however, Vice President Joe Biden will cast the tie-breaking vote to organize the Senate as a Democratic chamber. That’s a big deal, as it means the party will hold control of committees. And if the Democratic leadership is willing to reorganize the chamber with an eye toward creating greater flexibility (with a shift in the cloture rules), the Senate could serve as an effective counterbalance to the House.