Senate Races To Keep A Close Eye On

Missouri Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate Claire McCaskill (C) greets a shopper while stumping for votes at a supermarket November 6, 2006 in St. Louis, Missouri. McCaskill is in a close race against incumbent Republican Senator Jim Talent.
Getty Images/Scott Olson
This Senate race preview was written by's Christine Lagorio

The past few months have been an uphill battle for the Democrats, who must gain six seats to make a Senate majority. After significant gains by the Democrats against GOP incumbents this fall, they are knocking on the Senate door.

But while only one Republican candidate has a strong chance at booting out a Democratic incumbent, Republicans have a guarded optimism that they will retain control — barely — as the votes come in today.

That said, anything could happen. So what are the races to watch when the polls start to close tonight? Here's our guide.

Keep in mind that Democrats last controlled the Senate in 2002. Republicans now control 55 seats in the 100-member chamber. Independent Rep. Bernie Sanders, who is expected to take the place of retiring Independent Jim Jeffords, and Sen. Joe Lieberman, running as an independent in Connecticut after losing in the Democratic primary, have pledged to join the Democratic caucus if elected and to vote with Democrats on organizational matters. If a 50-50 split is formed in the Senate, Vice President Dick Cheney serves as the tiebreaker, meaning the majority leader and committee chairs would be GOP, and any split-down-the-middle votes would be decided by Cheney.

Conventional wisdom says the Democrats are well-positioned to pick up seats in Ohio, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania. They are leaning behind in Tennessee, which was a toss-up a week ago. If they lose there and hold all their current seats, Democrats would then need to win all three remaining toss-ups: Virginia, Missouri and Montana.

At 7 p.m.
Ending a race of big personalities and bare-knuckles campaigning, Virginia polls close. Jim Webb is a best-selling author, Vietnam Marine and former Republican. Once a long shot, he has made the race a toss-up. Sen. George Allen was a presidential contender a year ago, but now he's fighting for his life after a series of campaign gaffes and errors. A win for Webb may be crucial for Democratic hopes.

At 7:30 p.m.
Ohio polls close. Sen. Mike DeWine is trailing his Democratic challenger, seven-term Rep. Sherrod Brown, in recent polls. Is Ohio, the state that put President Bush over the top in 2004, trending blue? The last time a Democrat won an Ohio Senate race was 1992, making this a possible upset to watch. The Democrats are counting on a win here.

At 8 p.m.

  • Jim Talent of Missouri is locked in dead heats with his Democratic opponent. Polls during the past two weeks show Talent, a first-term Republican, narrowly trailing challenger Claire McCaskill, a former attorney and Jackson County prosecutor. CBS News reporter Steve Futterman met McCaskill while she was shaking hands with shoppers at a St. Louis supermarket. "It feels close," McCaskill told Futterman. "We are going to treat it like its close and we're going to campaign that way until 7 o'clock tomorrow night." The winner may not be known till long after that.
  • In Tennessee's race to replace retiring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Republican Bob Corker seems to be pulling away from Democratic Rep. Harold Ford Jr. Corker leads by 12 points in the latest poll from the Chattanooga Times Free Press & Memphis Commercial Appeal. A steamy ad produced by the Republican National Committee made national headlines for its steamy — and allegedly racist — content. In the ad, a young white actress talks about meeting Ford, a 36-year-old bachelor who is black, "at the Playboy party." At the end of the ad, she winks and says to the camera, "Harold, call me." Both candidates denounce the ad as tacky, but the ad became the poster child for an especially dirty campaign season.
  • Among Democratic incumbents, only Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey was considered in any real danger. He held a 48-43 percent edge over Republican challenger Tom Kean Jr. in a new Quinnipiac University poll. Other recent polls have given the Democrat as much as a 10-point lead.
  • Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman is now leading securely in polls against cable executive and newcomer to the national political scene Ned Lamont, who won the Democratic primary and caused the one-time presidential candidate to change parties. The saga comes to a close when voting stops at 8 p.m.
  • In the battle for Maryland's open Senate seat, Democrat Ben Cardin, a Jewish U.S. Representative who had held a comfortable lead over Republican Michael Steele, a black Catholic Lt. Gov., now leads by just 3 points in the latest Mason-Dixon poll. A SurveyUSA poll shows the race even. This is a Democratic seat, so if Cardin loses, the Democratic hunt for the Senate gets harder.
  • GOP Sen. Rick Santorum and of Pennsylvania is a legend for his staunch conservative views, and a favorite target of GOP-bashers. Now his pro-life Democratic opponent, state Treasurer Robert Casey Jr., appears poised to handily take down Santorum. Also, his moderate views will be some to watch once the composition of the Senate is settled.

    At 9 p.m.
    Polls close in Rhode Island, where Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee, who had been written off by some observers, has narrowed the gap with Democratic challenger Sheldon Whitehouse to 3 points in the latest USA Today/Gallup poll. A Mason-Dixon poll showed Chafee within one percentage point of Whitehouse.

    At 10 p.m.
    The last of the big races close their voting booths. In Montana, where Republican Sen. Conrad Burns had been struggling, polls are inconclusive, either showing Burns and Democrat Jim Tester tied (Mason-Dixon), or Tester with a 9-point lead (USA Today/Gallup). Monday, a Burns spokesman dismissed the USA Today/Gallup poll as inaccurate and said the campaign was revoking one newspaper's credentials to attend Burns' election night event in Billings because it wrote about the poll.

    Undoubtedly, the night will have some surprises. Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl could be in for an unexpectedly close race, some observers say. So could Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow from Michigan.

    It could be a long night, and polls in California and Hawaii don't close until 11 p.m. It will certainly be an important night in American politics.
    By Christine Lagorio

    • Tucker Reals

      Tucker Reals is the foreign editor, based at the CBS News London bureau.