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A look at House and Senate races to watch on election night

North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp and her Republican challenger Kevin Cramer.
North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp and her Republican challenger Kevin Cramer.Associated Press

President Trump likes to tell his supporters that the 2018 midterm elections are really about him. Former vice president Joe Biden tells his Democratic audiences the election is the most important of his lifetime. But on Nov. 6, the election really comes down to a few dozen House and Senate races — out of hundreds — around the country.

These are the contests that will probably decide which party controls Congress — and, as a result, either bolster or hinder the president’s agenda.

Here are the key races to watch on election night to see which way the wave is moving:

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First, the basics: Democrats need to flip a net of two seats for the majority — but that’s going to be difficult to pull off given the states where the party’s members are seeking reelection.

Two things must happen for Democrats to win. First, all Senate Democrats need to win reelection, including 10 in states that Trump won in 2016, such as North Dakota, Montana, and Missouri.

Next, Democrats need to play offense and win in states that haven’t exactly been friendly territory — Arizona, Texas, and Tennessee, for example.

It’s a tall order for Democrats, even if the blue wave crests on election night. Here’s a deeper look at individual Senate races:

North Dakota. Incumbent Democrat Heidi Heitkamp is seeking reelection, attempting to fend off a challenge from Representative Kevin Cramer, a Republican, in a state that traditionally favors the GOP. Heitkamp voted against the US Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, producing her single biggest day of fund-raising in the campaign. That was precipitously followed by Cramer’s ascent in the polls. Heitkamp is now considered an underdog.

Cook Political Report ranking: Lean Republican

Inside Elections ranking: Lean Republican

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Missouri. In the beginning, you couldn’t imagine the luck of incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill, facing a challenge from Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley. As McCaskill’s reelection campaign began, a huge scandal broke out that involved the Republican governor, inciting a huge division inside the GOP and questions about whether Hawley did enough to investigate the governor. With that mess past them now, Hawley has been surging in recent days.

Cook Political Report ranking: Toss up.

Inside Elections ranking: Tilt Republican

Florida. Longtime incumbent Bill Nelson, a Democrat, wasn’t initially on anyone’s target list, but that changed when Republican Governor Rick Scott decided to challenge him. Sure, Scott is well known and could self-finance much of his campaign, but the governor was everywhere in the wake of Hurricane Michael. Couple that with Nelson’s lagging support among Hispanic voters, and Democrats are worried.

Cook Political Report ranking: Toss up

Inside Elections ranking: Tilt Democrat

Indiana. There’s a battle in Vice President Mike Pence’s backyard. Democrat Joe Donnelly, the incumbent, brands himself as anti-abortion rights and talks up his work with Trump. On paper, given Indiana’s affinity for the president, this race could present a bad proposition for Donnelly — but the Republican nominee, businessman Mike Braun, never hit his stride during the contest. Donnelly is favored in polls, but Trump is making two eleventh-hour trips to the state in an attempt to energize the Republican base.

Cook Political Report ranking: Toss up

Inside Elections ranking: Toss up

Arizona. Here’s a headline: Arizona will have its first female senator next year. Representative Martha McSally, a Republican, and Representative Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat, are facing off for the seat held by retiring Senator Jeff Flake. McSally, a former Air Force colonel, defeated former state senator Kelli Ward and former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio in the Republican primaries. Sinema would be the first Democrat to win a Senate seat in Arizona since 1988.

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Cook Political Report ranking: Toss up

Inside Elections ranking: Tilt Democrat

Texas. In one of the most highly anticipated midterm races, Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican, is facing Democrat Beto O’Rourke in Texas. Over the past three months, O’Rourke has raised $38 million — more than any other Senate candidate in history. He has voiced his belief in guaranteed health care, legalizing marijuana, and comprehensive immigration reform. If he is victorious, O’Rourke would be the first Democrat to win any statewide elected office in the Republican-dominated state since 1994.

Cook Political Report ranking: Toss up

Inside Elections ranking: Likely Republican

Montana. Incumbent Jon Tester has argued that he is a different type of Democrat. How? A campaign spokesman responded to Tester’s “D” rating from the National Rifle Association not by taking on the organization, but by pointing out Tester once made a living “shooting hundreds of cows and hogs.” Tester is running against State Auditor Matt Rosendale. Polls have shown Tester with a slight lead.

Cook Political Report ranking: Toss up

Inside Elections ranking: Tilt Democrat

New Jersey. This state is about as Democratic as they come — yet in the closing days, polls show a single-digit race. Incumbent Democrat Bob Menendez was on trial for bribery in federal court last year, but it was ruled a mistrial. Now he faces a Bob Hugin, a Republican and former biopharmaceutical executive.

Cook Political Report ranking: Toss up

Inside Elections ranking: Likely Democrat

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Nevada. For Democrats to have a shot a a majority, they will need to flip seats and Nevada is — at least on paper — the lowest hanging fruit. It is the only place where a Republican senator is seeking reelection in a state that Hillary Clinton won. Polls have consistently shown this race to be statistically tied between incumbent Republican Dean Heller and Democrat Jacky Rosen, a US Representative.

Cook Political Report ranking: Toss-up

Inside Elections ranking: Tilt Democrat

While political prognosticators believe Democrats have a tough time winning the Senate, most expect them to win the House. To do that, Democrats need to flip a net of 23 seats from Republicans.

There are currently 72 highly competitive seats (out of 435 House races), according to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. Republicans currently hold 64 of the seats in play. The number of pure toss-up seats, according to Cook, has grown to 30 — and 28 of them are held by Republicans.

Just how much are Republicans playing defense in the House? Instead of fighting over traditional swing seats like New Hampshire’s First Congressional District, the heated contests are in reliably Republican areas such as the St. Louis suburbs, Kansas, and Kentucky.

Here’s a cheat sheet on the pivotal House races to watch on election night:

CA-10. GOP Representative Jeff Denham won reelection with 52 percent of the vote in 2016 in this Modesto-based district in the Central Valley. Denham, a conservative supporter of the president, is facing a challenge from Josh Harder, a former venture capitalist in his early 30s.

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CA-39. This is an open seat in once deeply Republican Orange County that has been moving toward Democrats (Hillary Clinton won it in 2016). Republican Young Kim and Democrat Gil Cisneros emerged from California’s “top two” primary in June, when they each only received 21 percent and 19 percent of the vote, respectively.

CA-45. In this other district in Orange County, incumbent Republican Mimi Walters had an especially strong 52 percent of the vote in the top two primary. But now Democrat Katie Porter has a clean shot at Walters in a district that Clinton won by 5 percentage points.

CA-48. Republican Dana Rohrabacher has served in Congress for 30 years, but Orange County is changing politically and the congressman’s love of Russia, which drew eye rolls before, is prompting different looks now. He only got 30 percent in the top two primary in June and is facing a self-financing multimillionaire in Democrat Harley Rouda.

FL-26. Given what incumbent Carlos Curbelo pulled off in 2016, he might be the most difficult Republican on this list for Democrats to defeat. Clinton won his district, which includes the southernmost tip of the state, by 16 points. Yet Curbelo won his race by 6 points. With $21 million spent so far in the race, this is the most expensive House contest in the country, according to data from CMAG, an ad-monitoring service. The Democratic challenger is Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a university fund-raiser.

FL-27. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen was always seen as a unicorn because no Republican should be representing this Miami district (Clinton won it with more than 20 points). With Ros-Lehtinen retiring, and former US Health and Human Services secretary Donna Shalala, a Democrat, running, it looked to be easy win for the blue team. But Shalala’s campaign has been roundly criticized as taking it for granted, and Republican Maria Elvira Salazar has made this a competitive contest.

IL-06. Much of the focus in the midterms has been on the suburban battleground, and this Chicago district encapsulates that problem for Republicans. Incumbent Representative Peter Roskam, a Republican, has been through tough elections before, but every recent poll found businessman Sean Casten, a Democrat, tied with him in a district that Clinton won by 7 points.

IL-14. This is another Chicago suburban district that was once so reliably Republican that former US House speaker Dennis Hastert represented it. Republican incumbent Randy Hultgren was elected in the 2010 Republican wave, and this district voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 and Trump by 4 points in 2016. But Democrat Lauren Underwood, a nurse, is making a significant play here. Former vice president Joe Biden just campaigned with her.

IA-03. This Des Moines-based seat went for Trump by just under 4 points in 2016, after Barack Obama carried it twice. Republican David Young has held the seat since 2014, but this race is a test of whether this will be the year of the woman. Businesswoman Cindy Axne is the Democratic nominee.

KS-02. Trump won this district by a whopping 18 points in 2016, but the Democratic nominee, Paul Davis, won it in his unsuccessful bid for governor in 2014. Republican Steve Watkins has had a pretty rough campaign, making headlines for lying about helping stranded climbers on Mount Everest. The incumbent, Republican Lynn Jenkins, is retiring.

KY-06. This district, which includes the college town of Lexington, was put on the map because of Democratic challenger Amy McGrath’s viral campaign ad about her service as a Marine fighter pilot. She raised millions in campaign cash to challenge Republican incumbent Andy Barr, who is hoping to hang on in a district that Trump won by 15 points.

ME-02. Home to the only truly competitive race in New England, this northern Maine district was the only one that Trump carried in the six-state region. Republican incumbent Bruce Poliquin has largely won reelection by keeping his head down and not attracting much attention, but Democrats note the strength of his challenger: Jared Golden is a veteran and former staffer to Senator Susan Collins.

MI-08. This district includes parts of Lansing and stretches through much of central Michigan, and Trump won it by 7 percentage points. Still, many consider Republican incumbent Mike Bishop, a former state lawmaker, to be among the most vulnerable in the country and Elissa Slotkin, a former CIA officer, to be one of Democrats’ best recruits this year.

MN-01. This has always been considered a swing district and with the incumbent, Tim Walz, running for governor, Republicans thought they have a good shot, especially given Trump won the district by 15 points. But then Jim Hagedorn, who has unsuccessfully run for Congress three times, won the Republican nomination. A conservative blogger and former US Treasury employee, Hagedorn also is known for his unsavory comments about female politicians, among other things. His opponent is Dan Feehan, a former Obama administration official in the Department of Defense.

NJ-03. Republican incumbent Tom MacArthur represents this suburban Philadelphia district just across the state line that Trump won by 6 points. Democrats have found a solid recruit in Andy Kim, a former Obama official.

NJ-07. This region has undergone one of the biggest political shifts in the country over the last decade. It went from a district that leans Republicans to one that tilts slightly toward Democrats. Republican incumbent Leonard Lance was already facing Democratic headwinds before Trump came along. Meanwhile, Democrat Tom Malinowski has drawn national fund-raising help, making Lance’s path to reelection even more difficult.

NY-19. Republican John Faso has been in office only one term representing a district that includes the Hudson Valley and the Catskills. Trump won the district by 7 points, but a poll out in the final week shows Democrat Antonio Delgado up by 5 points.

NY-22. While Republican incumbent Claudia Tenney represents a district that Trump won by 15 points, a pair of Siena College polls show her tied with Democrat Anthony Brindisi.

NC-09. This district, which includes the Raleigh suburbs, just saw Mark Harris defeat incumbent Robert Pittenger with a challenge from the right in the Republican primary. Democratic nominee Dan McCready, meanwhile, is pushing an image as a moderate. Polls show the race in single-digits.

OH-01. At least on paper, there are fewer districts more swingy than this one in the Cincinnati area. Republican incumbent Steve Chabot is trying to hold on against Aftab Pureval, a former corporate lawyer turned county clerk of courts, an elected position. It’s gotten pretty nasty in the Queen City: Some Chabot supporters have been called racist, and Republicans have accused Pureval’s campaign of an “illegal incursion into party operations.”

PA-01. This district’s boundaries were redrawn earlier this year, so technically no one is an incumbent, but Republican Brian Fitzpatrick represents much of this Northern Philadelphia suburban territory. Recent polls show Fitzpatrick leading Democrat Scott Wallace by just a single point.

TX-07. The Atlantic called this race the fight for the “future of Texas politics.” These suburbs of Houston have shifted so much that Romney won the district by 21 points in 2012, and then Clinton narrowly won it in 2016. This leaves Republican incumbent John Culberson in the political fight of his life against attorney Lizzie Fletcher.

TX-32. In a way it is incredible that Democrats are playing so much offense that even Pete Sessions, a 20-year incumbent, a powerful committee chairman, and the former leader of the House GOP’s campaign arm is struggling. Yet in this suburban Dallas district, Sessions faces Colin Allred, a former Tennessee Titans linebacker.

UT-04. Mia Love is the first black female Republican to serve in Congress, so it is understandable that her profile, along with being a strong speaker, made her something of a Republican sensation. But questions about her campaign spending have dogged her bid. Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams is now leading her in polls.

VA-02. This is the tidewater region, and it very narrowly went for Trump in 2016. If you’ve heard about this race, then you’ve likely heard about Republican incumbent Scott Taylor’s staffers allegedly forging signatures to get an independent on the ballot. Democrat Elaine Luria, a 20-year Naval combat veteran, is his opponent.

VA-07. Republican Dave Brat picked up national attention when he defeated House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a Republican primary in 2014. Now Brat needs to watch his left in this Richmond-area seat. He faces Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA operative. Polls show a tied race.

WA-08. There is no question this is a Democratic-leaning district, even though Republican Dave Reichert was able to carve out a string of wins. Now that he is retiring, Republican Dino Rossi, who has run several times statewide, will need to find a way to appeal to Democrats over pediatrician Kim Schrier.

WV-03. West Virginia has moved away from Democrats in recent years due to social issues and coal. This Southern West Virginia district is no different. Republican Carol Miller, the majority whip in the West Virginia House of Delegates may have the edge over Democrat Richard Ojeda, a state senator and retired army paratrooper, in this open seat (Republican Representative Evan Jenkins lost the primary for Senate), but the national dynamics could make this race interesting.

Informed voters make the best decisions. Sign-up to receive the Globe’s midterm election guide, with breakdowns of key local and national races, profiles of the candidates, and endorsements from our editorial board. And come back on election night, Tuesday, Nov. 6, for live results on the races and analysis from our expert political team.


Felicia Gans of the Globe staff contributed to this report. James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.