New York: The Democratic Party picked up two new Senate seats, in North Carolina and Virginia, according to early election results Tuesday, as the party moved toward larger majorities in both houses of the U.S. Congress.
The Democrats were expected to profit from the popularity of presidential hopeful Barack Obama _ and discontent with Republican President George W. Bush _ to expand their influence in Washington.
In a major upset, a Democratic state legislator, Kay Hagan, unseated Sen. Elizabeth Dole, one of the biggest names Republican Party, in North Carolina, according to an Associated Press analysis of early returns.
In Virginia, former Democratic Gov. Mark Warner breezed to victory in Virginia over another former governor, Republican Jim Gilmore, in the race to replace retiring five-term Republican Sen. John W. Warner. The two Warners are not related.
The twin wins in southern seats fueled expectations that Democrats would expand their now-thin 51-49 leadership grip over the upper house of the legislature.
According to other preliminary counts, six Democrats and four Republicans retained their seats.
The Democratic winners included Obama’s vice presidential candidate Joe Biden of Delaware; he’ll relinquish the seat if his ticket wins the White House. Others were Frank Lautenberg in New Jersey, Jay Rockefeller in West Virginia, and John Kerry in Massachusetts.
Republicans retaining seats included Susan Collins of Maine and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
Democrats were counting on heavy turnout to capture more than 20 Republican seats in the House of Representatives, although the man who heads the Democratic campaign committee cautioned that the gains might not be in the range that some pundits had envisioned.
Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen said Tuesday that a high turnout for Obama should help House _ and Senate _ candidates. But over the past few days, he said, “we saw actually a tightening in a lot of races. That is why I’ve been careful ... about these huge numbers people are talking about.”
Public concern about the U.S. economy increased the odds Americans would vote against Republicans identified with Bush, who has been blamed for the financial crisis.
An Associated Press exit poll found that six in 10 voters across the country said the economy was the most important issue facing the United States.
That should boost Democrats’ chances, because would-be voters have consistently said they believe Obama and the Democratic Party are better suited to deal with economic problems than McCain.
The issues that McCain has most been identified with _ Iraq, terrorism and energy _ were picked by fewer than one in 10 voters in the AP exit poll.
Worried Republicans have taken to warning that the United States faces the possibility of strongly Democratic House and Senate memberships at the same time there’s a Democratic president. They say that, unchecked, Democrats will go on a spending spree to expand social programs.
The Senate Republican campaign committee warned in an ad last week that liberals threatened to take total control of Washington.
“No checks. No balances ... a liberal agenda so scary its effects will be felt for a generation,” the announcer says.
The final pre-election poll by Gallup indicated that Americans generally favor Democrats in Congress by a 12 percentage point lead among likely voters, or 53 percent to 41 percent. The survey was conducted Oct. 31-Nov 2.
In the Senate, essentially the upper house of the legislature, 35 seats are in contention.
If the Democrats can pick up nine seats _ a long shot that would require unexpected victories in the traditionally conservative South _ it would strengthen their majority from a slim 51-49 to an nearly unbeatable 60-40.
Winning 60 seats or more in the 100-seat Senate would be a major boon to the Democrats because it would make it nearly impossible for the opposition Republicans to use a filibuster to kill legislation. A filibuster, a procedural way to extend debate indefinitely and keep a proposal from coming to a vote, can be cut off in the Senate with a supermajority of 60 votes.
The Democrats have especially targeted seats in Colorado, Idaho, Nebraska, New Mexico and Virginia, where Republicans have chosen not to run again.
Some other Republican senators also are at risk, as the Democratic campaign outspends the Republican Party by more than 2-to-1.
In Minnesota, Republican incumbent Norm Coleman faced a tough challenge by Democrat Al Franken, the former “Saturday Night Live” writer and actor who became a best-selling author and radio host on the fledgling liberal Air America network.
In Alaska, Republican Ted Stevens, who has been in the Senate for 40 years, faces a tough re-election fight from Democrat Mark Begich since his conviction last week on charges he accepted favors from a contractor.
Three relative Republican newcomers, all elected in 2002 _ Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, John Sununu of New Hampshire and Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina _ are trying to fend off strong Democratic challenges.
Even the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who has been in the Senate since 1984 but is tarnished by his association with Bush, has a strong Democratic challenger, millionaire businessman Bruce Lunsford.
In the House, the lower body of the legislature, all 435 seats are up for election. Republicans hold 199 seats, the Democrats, 235. One seat is vacant due to a death.
Some 29 Republicans in the House have chosen to retire, and Democrats are projected to win at least a third of those seats.
Democrats also have their sights on a number of seats with incumbents, including Alaska’s Don Young; Colorado’s Marilyn Musgrave; Connecticut’s Christopher Shays; Florida’s Tom Feeney; Michigan’s Joe Knollenberg; Nevada’s Jon Porter; New York’s RandyKuhl, and Virginia’s Thelma Drake.
Among the few Democrats in close races are Reps. Nick Lampson in Texas, who is in a solidly Republican district; Tim Mahoney in Florida, who recently admitted to having extramarital affairs; Carol Porter Shea in New Hampshire, and Paul Kanjorski in Pennsylvania.
The Democrats, who picked up 30 seats in the House in the last election in 2006 and three more in special elections, are outspending the Republicans this year 3-to-1. They are expected to add at least a dozen seats in Tuesday’s voting _ and could pick up 25 to 30 seats depending on the strength of the surge.