A few months ago, only the most optimistic Democrats would have predicted a change in control of the Senate. Now the Democrats have a shot at doing just that, though the Republicans continue to hold most of the cards with the midterm election just a few days away.
The Democrats need to hold all of their seats and capture six GOP seats to regain control of the Senate. That means Democrats have the daunting task of winning in six of the seven states where GOP incumbents are seen as vulnerable: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri, Montana, Virginia, Rhode Island and Tennessee. In addition, the Democrats will need to beat back strong GOP challenges to seats they hold in Maryland and New Jersey.
When the smoke clears, most analysts interviewed by CBSNews.com think the struggle for control of the Senate will be decided by the outcome of the races in Missouri, Virginia and Tennessee.
"What seems to be emerging as the three key bellwether states are Virginia, Tennessee and Missouri," said GOP pollster David Winston.
The party that wins two of these three races will most likely control the Senate in the 110th Congress.
Most political pundits believe that the Democrats will pick up four to seven Republican seats.
In four states — Pennsylvania, Ohio, Rhode Island and Montana — Republican incumbents are in trouble, according to the latest polls. But winning those four seats will give the Democrats just 49 votes. And that's why the Democrats need two of the three bellwether states.
The belief that the Democrats just might pull it off has been strengthened by the continued unpopularity of President Bush and the war in Iraq. Congressional Republicans have also been bedeviled by a series of scandals.
"Republicans are in trouble everywhere, all because of Bush's unpopularity," said Kenneth Warren, a professor of political science at Saint Louis University. President Bush's approval rating held steady at 34 percent in the.
History also seems to be working for the Democrats. While Mr. Bush was able to avoid traditional midterm losses in 2002, it appears the "six-year itch" is primed to bring about changes in Washington on the morning after Election Day.
"The second midterm is almost always a disaster," said Democratic pollster Harrison Hickman.
While they acknowledge the difficulty this election, Republicans believe they will remain ahead in the end. Brian Nick, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said the GOP always knew the election would be tough, "but we feel very good about protecting out incumbents."
"This is going to be close in the end," said GOP pollster Winston. "Republicans are going to lose some seats and the question is whether Democrats can run the table."
The Big Three
The Show Me State has been known as one of the most reliable bellwether states. In presidential contests since 1904, Missourians have voted for the winner every time except for 1956. For that reason, it will be especially important to watch for the winner in this race between Republican incumbent Sen. Jim Talent and state auditor Claire McCaskill.
"Talent is in trouble because the political mood is pro-Democrat, anti-Bush," said Saint Louis University's Warren. "Issues in Missouri resonate nationally."
Of particular interest in Missouri has been the stem cell debate. In addition to their vote for senator, voters will be asked to vote on a referendum to allow more stem cell research. National attention focused on this race after an ad in favor of McCaskill featuring actoraired during the World Series.
That referendum and another that raises the state minimum wage both are likely to pass with wide margins, according to the latest polls. McCaskill's support for both measures will likely help her in the Senate race, according to Warren.
But McCaskill's prospects also may depend on whether she is able to connect with rural voters, who account for 47 percent of the electorate. After she lost the governor's race in 2004, she vowed to campaign more in the state's rural countryside.
However, Warren thinks this may be a risky strategy because so much time must be spent to reach voters who are spread out over 109 of the state's 114 counties. Also, Talent might be able to find an advantage by focusing his campaign on the urban areas to appeal to black voters who likely lean towards McCaskill. The latest polls show the race neck and neck with neither candidate pulling ahead.
At the start of this year, no one would have envisioned that Sen. George Allen would be in the position he is now. Allen was flying high, and pundits were talking about his chances for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. His re-election campaign seemed like it would be a cakewalk.
But that all turned as the political mood has turned sour on Republicans and after a series of controversies, Democratic challenger Jim Webb, an author and a former Secretary of the Navy, even has a small lead in some of the latest polls.
Allen's troubles started in August, when at a campaign event he called a Webb campaign worker ofwhich is a type of monkey.
"It was one of those spontaneous moments that unhinged the campaign," said Mark Rozell, a political scientist at George Mason University. "It began a confluence of events that made Allen's character the issue."
Although Allen claims he did not know what "macaca" meant, the gaffe made Allen and his character the focus of the campaign. Over the next month, Allen was off-message as further revelations were made about derogatory comments against blacks he allegedly made when he was younger. Controversy also spilled into the campaign when Allen.
Combined with the national mood turning against Republicans, the Virginia Senate race suddenly became competitive and control of the Senate was in play.
But Webb also has not been immune to controversy during the campaign. He has come under fire for an article he wrote in 1979 about women's role in the military, as well as for racy passages in some of his novels. Webb is also not as comfortable as a campaigner as Allen.
Who wins will likely depend on turnout in the more Republicans rural areas versus the strength of Webb's margin of victory in more Democratic Northern Virginia. According to Rozell, a Webb win could also be suggestive of a demographic shift that will make Virginia a more competitive two-party state in the years to come. A Democratic presidential candidate hasn't carried the state since 1964.
Tennessee is shaping up to be the Democrats' longest shot in the last week of the campaign. Democratic Rep. Harold Ford Jr. and Republican Bob Corker, the former mayor of Chattanooga, have been running close for months in the race to fill the seat being vacated by Senate Majority Bill Frist (who is not running for reelection), but some late polls this week show the race may be tilting towards Corker.
Ford, who comes from a famous political family in the Memphis area, is trying to become the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction. However, racial politics have become a key factor in the race after thefeaturing a white woman who suggestively says, "Harold, call me," after they met at "the Playboy party."
Although the controversy over the ad may also energize Ford's base, Christian Grose, an assistant professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, said on balance the effect has been a negative for Ford. The fact that he has had to talk about race over the last week precluded him from talking about other issues where he would perhaps gain ground.
"It's reinforced the perception that Democrats only like to talk about race," Grose said.
While Grose said that Ford faces an "uphill battle" because of his race, he thinks it is still possible for Ford to win because he has more charisma and is a better campaigner relative to Corker — and that "even in Tennessee, there is an anti-Bush, anti-Republican feeling."
Grose added that the outcome of this race is particularly hard to predict and that it feels "weird" on the campaign trail because many voters don't seem to like either candidate.
"They are not excited about Democrats, and they are not excited about Republicans," he said.
Other Races To Watch
While the most attention will be focused on those races on Election Day, they are not the only ones to keep an eye on. Sleepers and surprises could be found across the country and races could change dramatically on the flip of a coin.
"As much happens in the last six days as the last six weeks," said Hickman.
Montana: Many analysts long ago wrote off Sen. Conrad Burns' chances, due to alleged connections with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and a series of outlandish remarks that drew negative press. But Burns has proved resilient of late and seems to be making a late charge in the polls against Democrat John Tester, the president of the state senate.
Burns' late charge has caused the national party to spend money in the state for the first time since August. Further showing Republicans' belief that Burns could win, both Mr. Bush and Vice President Cheney made visits to the state this week.
Burns' chances may depend on his ability to paint Tester as too liberal in the state in which 59 percent voted for Mr. Bush in 2004 and to portray his senior seat on the Senate Appropriations committee as one too valuable to give up.
"Conrad Burns has done a good job selling himself as a guy who brings home the bacon," Democratic pollster Hickman said.
New Jersey: New Jersey is turning into the Republicans' best chance to pick up a seat — and. Sen. Robert Menendez has only been in office since he was appointed in January, and thus has not been able to build up the benefits of incumbency. His challenger, Republican Tom Kean Jr., the son of the popular former governor and co-chair of the 9/11 Commission, is trying to make the campaign about corruption and paint Menendez as corrupt in a series of TV ads. The race has been characterized by nasty ads all over the airways on both sides. Recent polls seem to break slightly for Menendez — but if that changes, it would dash almost all hopes of the Democrats taking the Senate.
Rhode Island: Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee's seat has long been high on the endangered list. Despite a famous last name in the state and a moderate record (he was the only Senate Republican to vote against the Iraq War authorization), Chafee has been unable break free of the party label in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans more than three to one.
Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, a former state attorney general, has been hammering home Chafee's ties to the national party after the senator needed help to defeat conservative Stephen P. Laffey in the party primary in September. Although some polls show Chafee staying within single digits, he looks likely to be athis year.
Maryland: Maryland is usually a reliably blue state, but it also represents the Republicans' second-best chance to pick up a Democratic seat that's opening due to the retirement of Sen. Paul Sarbanes. Republican candidate Michael Steele, the lieutenant governor, is trying to become the state's first black senator and take a bite out of Democrats' traditional advantage with black voters. The strategy may be working — on Monday a coalition of prominent black elected Democrats endorsed Steele. Coupled with Steele's charisma and skills as a campaigner, in a regular year he might be ahead of Democrat Rep. Ben Cardin. Polls show anti-Republican sentiment will likely push Cardin to victory on Election Day, but this will be one to watch as a sleeper.
Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan & Washington: Democrats have double-digit leads in these four states, with incumbents appear poised to win in Michigan and Washington while Democratic challengers appear likely to unseat Republican incumbents in Ohio and Pennsylvania. However, if any of these break for the GOP in the last days of the campaign, it would be a sign of a disappointing Election Day for Democrats across the country.
"Take polls with a grain of salt," warned NRSC spokesman Nick. "There are races across the country that are competitive."
Connecticut: Finally, while what happens in Connecticut won't affect control, it will be another interesting one to watch. All eyes focused on state in August when Sen. Joe Lieberman lost in the Democratic primary to challenger Ned Lamont. But Lieberman, now running as an independent, has built a substantial lead in the latest polls over Lamont and Republican Alan Schlesinger. Lieberman's success is due to his support from a vast majority of Republicans, and Schlesinger has become a footnote in the race. Monika L. McDermott, a professor of political science at the University of Connecticut, says that while she expects Lieberman to prevail, this race could be closer than expected if his Republican supporters aren't motivated to vote on Election Day.
By Kevin Hechtkopf