Editor's note: John P. Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for The Daily Beast. He is the author of "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America."
(CNN) -- With roughly 500 races in 50 states, there's no shortage of indicators to keep an eye on this Election Day. But there's an unlikely state that could help measure the extent of Republican gains Tuesday -- New York.
While GOP Senate and gubernatorial candidates have been making gains in states across the nation, the controversial Carl Paladino is at the top of New York's ticket. His serial scandals and stumbles have put him far behind Attorney General Andrew Cuomo in the polls. Likewise, the two Senate races show incumbents Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand far ahead of their obscure GOP challengers.
Despite the drag from the top of the ticket, polls show that Republicans might make gains in the congressional delegation for the first time in a decade. In 1998, Republicans controlled a dozen congressional seats in the Empire State -- 10 years later that number was down to two.
But this year, Republican candidates seem to be surging in seats listed among the CNN 100 -- including New York's 20th Congressional District, which pits Democrat incumbent Scott Murphy against Republican Chris Gibson; incumbent John Hall against Nan Hayworth the 19th; Rep. Michael Arcuri against Richard Hanna in the 24th; and Matthew Zeller versus Tom Reed in the 29th.
In a time of increasing social conservatism from many GOP candidates, both Hayworth and Hanna are for abortion rights. And it's possible that the Republican wave might also hit the shores of New York's Staten Island, where Democrat incumbent Michael McMahon is running against Michael Grimm.
If Harlem's embattled but legendarily long-serving liberal Rep. Charlie Rangel finds himself in a tight race against his long-shot Republican challenger, the Rev. Michael Faulkner, you know it will be a long night for Democrats across the country.
That's not all -- pre-election polls also show the much-endorsed GOP state comptroller candidate Harry Wilson and attorney general nominee Dan Donovan surging in the polls against incumbent Comptroller Tom DiNapoli and attorney general nominee Eric Schneiderman. This reflects what I believe is a national trend driving this midterm election -- the desire for the checks and balances of divided government, especially from independent voters.
There's no question that New York's next governor will face serious fiscal challenges -- including an expected $8 billion budget deficit. Perhaps that's why even the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Cuomo, has been sounding fiscal conservative themes, ruling out tax increases while committing to take on the public-sector unions with pension reforms and other measures. This promises a Nixon-in-China-style move on the state budget, which California Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown also has echoed. Cuomo might have his fiscal conservative efforts aided by newfound Republican control of the state Senate.
So why do Empire State races matter if you're not among the 19 million Americans who live in New York? Because the GOP's apparent down-ticket strength -- even with an extreme and even embarrassing gubernatorial candidate such as Paladino -- speaks to the deeper trend that could be driving Republican gains this year.
Its momentum might even extend into the normally inhospitable Northeast, reflecting the appetite for the checks and balances of divided government. It might also reflect the anti-establishment anger we've seen all election year, which the New York Daily News captured on its front page Tuesday with this headline: "Dump the Weasels!"
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John P. Avlon.