A well-known Democratic strategist commented to me the other day, "We have a hurricane coming right at us. We know it's not going to veer to the left or right; it's coming straight at us. It could end up being a Category 3, 4, or 5, but right now it's a 5."
In my mind, a Category 3 storm would mean that the Democrats would suffer significant losses in the House and Senate but maintain majorities in both.
A Category 4 would flip the House into GOP hands, although maybe not by much, and Democrats would keep control of the Senate by a slim margin. In a Category 5 tempest, Democrats would lose the House in spectacular fashion, giving Republicans a substantial majority, and the Senate would be teetering on the edge.
So, what are the implications of either a Category 3 or a Katrina-like Category 5? The House now has 256 Democrats and 179 Republicans (counting one vacant seat for each party in their total). That's a 59 percent-41 percent ratio. Virtually every plausible election outcome points to a more closely divided House.
If you gave House Speaker Nancy Pelosi a choice of a 30-seat loss versus taking her chances in the election, she would accept the nine-seat majority in a heartbeat. At this point, the best-case scenario for Democrats would be a 226-209 majority, a 52 percent-48 percent breakdown.
The best-case scenario for Republicans would be a 60-seat gain, which would give them a 239-196 advantage, a 55 percent-45 percent split. That's a pretty narrow division by historical standards, but close has been the norm since the 1994 election. Neither party has had a truly decisive majority in the chamber in the past 16 years. Even so, because the House has no filibuster rule, the majority party can generally pass legislation close to what it wants.
One can imagine two GOP chiefs in the Senate: Mitch McConnell, the official leader, and Jim DeMint, a shadow leader.
In the Senate, however, a 59- or 60-seat majority is often not enough to prevail because the rules allow filibusters and holds. In the upper chamber, a party would probably need a two-thirds majority to truly get what it wants. If you offered Senate Democratic leaders a choice of a six-seat net loss (factoring in independents) versus taking their chances in the election, they would gladly write off the half-dozen seats. The very best outcome for Democrats in this election would be a 53-47 majority.
For Republicans, the best-case scenario would be a 12-seat gain in the Senate -- keeping all of their own seats, plus winning every Democratic seat that is leaning their way, every toss-up race, and the open West Virginia seat. That would give the GOP a 53-47 majority -- an identical margin to the Democrats', but still far short of enabling them to break a filibuster.
In short, the election is likely to produce a very evenly split Senate, which would mean, at best, a lowest-common-denominator situation and, at worst, legislative paralysis. Very possibly, neither party would be able to enact or repeal anything particularly controversial.
Let the record show that, in my experience, the outcome will probably be something between the best and worst scenarios.
Just to spice things up more, President Obama and congressional Democrats will come out of this election largely repudiated, but Republicans will have little time to celebrate. Civil war will soon break out on multiple fronts between the old Republican Party and the new Republican Party that has been expanded by tea party adherents and sympathizers.
One can imagine two GOP chiefs in the Senate: Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the official leader, and Jim DeMint of South Carolina, a shadow leader. DeMint could control a minimum of 10 Senate votes and perhaps more if you count more-traditional Republicans who are up for re-election in 2012 or 2014 and fear a conservative primary challenge.
The ghosts of Utah's Robert Bennett, Delaware's Michael Castle, and Alaska's Lisa Murkowski will be hanging over the GOP Conference's Tuesday lunches, reminding incumbents such as Orrin Hatch what could happen to them.
This article appears in the September 25, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine Contents.