As Democrats Eye Historic Gains in Congress, Some Races to Watch

They will pick up seats in the House, but reaching a filibuster-proof Senate majority will be tough

Former New Hampshire Governor and current U.S. Senate candidate Jeanne Shaheen is cheered on by supporters as she enters the New Hampshire Democratic Convention in Manchester, N.H.

Jeanne Shaheen is leading the polls in New Hampshire.

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Nobody's uncorked champagne—or unleashed balloons and confetti—but Democrats in Congress expect a good night November 4 amid predictions they'll gain several seats in the House and Senate. It would be quite a follow-up to the victories two years ago that allowed them to reclaim both chambers.

Analysts say Democrats could gain as many as six to eight Senate seats, potentially even the ninth one they would need to win a filibuster-proof majority. In the House, the party looks to collect 15 to 25 more seats. After most so-called wave elections—such as in 2006, when Democrats netted 30 House seats—the victors traditionally surrender some seats in the next election. If there's another banner day for House Democrats, it "would qualify as an aftershock to an earthquake," says David Wasserman, an editor at the Cook Political Report.

What has gone wrong for the GOP? An unpopular president and the nerve-jangling economic turmoil have conspired to create a political climate for Republicans that is the worst since Watergate. Voters are angry and—even though Congress shifted to Democratic control two years ago—they appear poised to take it out on the GOP. Early in the game, Republicans confronted a flurry of retirements in both houses—a byproduct of having been banished to the minority after the 2006 contests—and struggled with fundraising, too. Lately, people have been telling pollsters they prefer Democrats in Congress by a double-digit margin.

In the House, this means that Democrats could significantly widen their 235-to-199 majority. Over in the Senate, Democrats have been clinging to a razor-thin voting majority, 51-to-49. That means Republicans would have to surrender nine spots to allow their rivals to reach the magic number, 60. Once an impossible dream, now for Democrats it's difficult but doable, though the economic meltdown has made this year's home stretch for congressional candidates as unpredictable as any in recent memory. "They've got to sweep every race," says political analyst Stuart Rothenberg.

Some key contests to watch:


North Carolina: Dole vs. Hagan. Sen. Elizabeth Dole coasted to victory in 2002 but now is in the fight of her life, not least for her support of the war and President Bush. In 2006, she disastrously led the charge to elect Senate Republicans, whose numbers shrank by six. Before reaching the Senate, she held two cabinet posts, led the American Red Cross, and gave the White House a shot leading up to 2000. Plus, she's married to Bob Dole, who represented Kansas in the Senate for 27 years and ran for president in 1996.

That a skilled pol, seasoned campaigner, and champion fundraiser such as Dole, who is 72, is battling to keep her seat is startling. Blame Bush's low ratings, the poor political environment, and a feisty challenger, state Sen. Kay Hagan, who is getting loads of money from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Hagan links Dole and Bush at every turn, and although she lacks Dole's war chest, she could benefit from Barack Obama's coattails.

"A year ago, Liz Dole looked invincible—she was the grand lady of North Carolina," observes Rothenberg, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report. "And her opponent just drove her negatives up. Now, instead of being this very popular southern belle, Dole is just another politician with high negatives."

Hagan, 55, has grabbed a lead in some polls. A former banker, she was elected to the state Senate 10 years ago and is the niece of the late Lawton Chiles, a Democratic U.S. senator from Florida and former governor.

New Hampshire: Sununu vs. Shaheen. Republican Sen. John Sununu is facing very strong headwinds in his rematch against ex-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen. Sununu, 44, beat her handily six years ago, but the state's political hues have gone from red to purple to blue. Shaheen has led in polling for many months—no small feat when your opponent is a sitting U.S. senator. One hope for Sununu, an aggressive campaigner, is a bump from John McCain, who carried the state twice in primaries.