Cautious nets settle in for long Election Night

House called, but Senate too close

After weeks of predictions and counterpredictions, Election Night 2006 at press time was living up to expectations as a late-night nail-biter for the TV networks.

Even at 10 p.m. EST, three hours after the first states' polls closed, the networks were being exceedingly cautious about projecting winners that would settle the night's burning questions: Would the Democrats take control of the House of Representatives, the Senate, both or neither?

Then, at 10:54 p.m. EST, NBC appeared to be the first to project that the Democrats had won the House. MSNBC called it at 10:56 p.m., followed by ABC at 10:57 p.m. and CNN at 11:14.

"We're seeing trends, but we want to give it some more time," CNN president Jonathan Klein said shortly before 10 p.m. at CNN's bustling fourth-floor control room, one floor below its newly revamped, high-tech newsroom and studio. A half-hour earlier, his network had projected that Rhode Island Republican Lincoln Chafee would be unseated, inching the Democrats closer to control of the Senate. But it was nearly certain that CNN — and the other networks — weren't going to be able to confirm that for hours with too-close-to-call Senate races in Virginia, Tennessee, Montana and Missouri. Yet the Democrats had picked up Senate seats in Pennsylvania and Ohio as well.

Political director Sam Feist, perched in a seat in front of a bank of computers in the control room and hooked up via headset to decision-desk chief Keating Holland upstairs, glanced at his list of 60 hot-button House races and the four Senate races at 10 p.m. and said it was too early to tell. Democrats needed to pick up three of those Senate races — and 12 more House races — to win control. CNN had projected winners in only four of the House races: three for the Democrats and one for the Republicans.

"We're watching the Senate races very carefully," he said, pausing to answer myriad questions coming over his headset. He said the next hour would give more clues as to how long it would take to resolve.

"If (the Democrats) lose two of those, we know it's not going to be that late of a night," Feist said. But CNN and the other networks were ready for a late night, with Fox News and MSNBC going wall-to-wall with election coverage. ABC was the first network to go to election results on broadcast prime, after "Dancing With the Stars" ended at 9:30 p.m. EST, a half-hour ahead of both NBC and CBS, which started their hour in primetime at 10 p.m. EST.

"Get some cookies and milk and stay up with us," MSNBC's Chris Matthews told viewers at 9:47 p.m. EST, just before a break.

CNN's behind-the-scenes efforts broke into high gear at 5:15 p.m., when Feist, Holland and Washington bureau chief David Bohrman convened a meeting in the middle of the newsroom to go over the exit poll results that had been released from quarantine 15 minutes earlier. But Holland, who had been at the quarantine site, and others warned CNN staffers to take the exit polls with a grain of salt.

"The disclaimers took three times as long as the results," CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin joked. The exit poll results seemed to offer few surprises.

That's not to say that the networks held back calling some of the races. CNN got its ball rolling at 7 p.m., when polls in Indiana and Vermont closed, projecting that Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar would retain his seat and that Bernie Sanders, an independent, would be Vermont's next senator. CNN kept pace all night, with Holland reporting the decision desk's projections to Feist. Feist's voice would occasionally come over the newsroom intercom to tell everyone what the network would project on the air a few minutes later and, just as important, what it wasn't going to call.

Decision-desk members like Amy Walter, whose day job is with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, was CNN's expert on the House of Representatives. Very early in the night — around 6:45 p.m. — Walker looked at a screen and said an early indication of what would happen could be found in Kentucky, where Democrats could take three House seats that normally would have stayed in GOP hands.

The dire predictions of problems with voting didn't seem to play out, with only scattered reports of unusual things happening at the polls. CNN, like other networks, put particular attention on trying to find out what was happening on the ground, depending on staffers nationwide as well as citizens sending videos and e-mails and calling in to CNN. Senior producer Janelle Rodriguez had been at the desk since 6 a.m., when the polls opened on the East Coast, checking on what had grown by 7 p.m. to complaints between 70 and 80 pages.

"A lot of the time has been knocking them down," she said.

One of the reports that turned out to be true came from a small town in Oklahoma, which suffered a power failure at the polling place because of what CNN anchor Ali Velshi called a "rogue squirrel" chomping on a cable.

"Hey, at 1 p.m. squirrels were as good as anything else" to report, Velshi joked.

CNN has made no bones about how important the election is for the network. It committed resources to a series of hourlong specials called "Broken Government," which ran in early primetime on the network and featured many of the network's star journalists as well as town-hall meetings on the middle class and immigration hosted by Lou Dobbs. And a few months ago, CNN unveiled a high-tech studio — and long video wall — that it said would revolutionize the way TV news was done. Feist and Klein both praised the new studio, particularly the wall.

"It's working exceedingly well," Feist said. "The wall is allowing us to post a lot more results" than normally would have been done on a single, regular-size screen.

The excitement was palpable, with Dobbs, Wolf Blitzer, Paula Zahn and Anderson Cooper rotating the anchorship beginning at 7 p.m. until midnight EST, when Larry King was scheduled to be on air live for two hours from his Los Angeles studio.

"I think we're ready," Blitzer said moments before he went on the air. "We've been working at this for a long time. We've been prepping for this for months, shall we say years."