By the end of election night, it was clear that the Democratic Party had gained at least five seats in the Senate.
And, 24 hours later, the Democrats appeared to have increased their take to a full half-dozen, as Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley pulled ahead of two-term Republican Sen. Gordon Smith with most of the yet-to-be counted votes in strongly Democratic-voting areas. The Oregonian newspaper in Portland projected a victory for Merkley, the Speaker of the Oregon House, and CQ Politics' independent analysis of the outstanding votes concurs with that conclusion.
The main reason it seems likely that Merkley will end up ahead is that only 62 percent of the vote had been counted in Multnomah County -- site of Portland, Oregon's most populous city -- and Merkley had already run up 67 percent of the vote and a margin of about 85,000 votes in this Democratic stronghold. This suggests it is likely that the county will add many thousands of votes to Merkley's statewide edge. In addition, Merkley was running 20 percentage points ahead of Smith in Lane County, which includes the city of Eugene and the University of Oregon, with about a quarter of the votes yet to be counted. There are no comparably large fonts of votes remaining to be tallied in more conservative areas that are favorable to Smith.
Even as votes were still being counted in Oregon - and three other too-close-to-call Senate races - it seemed as if Democrats would fall short of their goal of a 60-vote majority that would make Republican filibusters all but impossible. Only in a year when Democratic ambitions ran so high, though, could a gain of at least five seats be considered a disappointment.
After getting by for two years on 49 seats and the cooperation - part of the time at least - of two independents, Democrats enter the 111th Congress with effective control of at least 55 seats. One of the independents, Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, has not said whether he intends to continue caucusing with Democrats.
The Democratic majority is the largest for either party since 1994, when Republicans gained eight Senate seats and control of the chamber.
Democrats toppled two Republican incumbents - North Carolina state Sen. Kay Hagan scored a come-from-behind win over Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole , and former New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen defeated Sen. John E. Sununu in a rematch of their closely contested 2002 race - and easily picked up seats left open by retiring Republican incumbents in Colorado, New Mexico and Virginia.
Contests in Alaska, Minnesota and Georgia are hanging in the balance. The final but unofficial count in Minnesota showed first-term Republican Sen. Norm Coleman with a 571-vote lead over the Democratic nominee, well-known entertainer Al Franken. But that razor-thin margin out of more than 2.4 million votes cast triggers an automatic recount under state elections law.
The recount can begin only after the state canvassing board meets on Nov. 18, and the process is expected to take at least a week beyond that, and and possibly more than two weeks.
Coleman's campaign manager, Cullen Sheehan, issued a statement in the early hours of Wednesday that the senator was "thrilled and humbled to be given the opportunity to serve the people of Minnesota for another six years." The Coleman campaign did not return a call for comment about the recount development by midday Wednesday.
In Georgia, with several precincts still to report and additional ballots remaining to be counter, first-term Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss had received less than 50 percent of the vote in his race with former state Rep Jim Martin, according to the Associated Press, and under state law the contest would have to be decided in a runoff.
Martin told reporters Wednesday that he expected to break even with Chambliss on the estimated 200,000 ballots remaining to be counted and head into a runoff, which would be held Dec. 2.
One major challenge for Martin will be to replicate turnout, especially among African-Americans, without Barack Obama on the ballot. Martin argued he proved his ability to compete in a runoff this year when he clinched his party's nomination in a Democratic runoff. Dems Gain in Oregon Senate Race, Three Other Races Unresolved
There were a few bright spots for Republicans on Tuesday: The party's leader in the Senate, Kentucky's Mitch McConnell , had been targeted by Democrats but managed to retain his seat, defeating Democratic businessman Bruce Lunsford by 53 percent to 47 percent. In his victory speech Tuesday night, McConnell noted he was on his way to becoming Kentucky's longest-serving senator, and described himself as "energized and recommitted" to addressing key issues, including energy independence.
Resilient Maine GOP centrist Susan Collins easily withstood a Democratic tide in her state, which Obama carried Maine with 58 percent of the vote. Collins defeated Democratic Rep. Tom Allen . In Mississippi, where Republican presidential nominee John McCain ran strongly, GOP Sen. Roger Wicker held onto the seat he had been appointed to by defeating Democratic former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove.
In Alaska, Republican Sen. Ted Stevens maintained a narrow lead over Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, the Democratic candidate, 48 percent to 46.5 percent, despite Steven's conviction just a week before Election Day on seven felony counts for failing to report expensive gifts from home-state business interests. Many of the overseas ballots in the race, which make up a portion of votes remaining to be counted, are from military personnel and and typically favor Republicans in the state. The 84-year-old Stevens is the longest serving Republican in the Senate, but even if re-elected he could be expelled by his colleague or pushed to resign from the Senate, triggering a special election to be held within 60 to 90 days of his departure.
Nationally, Republicans could muster only one serious challenge for a Democratic-held Senate seat but fell short as Louisiana Democrat Mary L. Landrieu secured a third term. She defeated state Treasurer John Kennedy, who switched to the Republican Party to challenge Landrieu. She won by 52 percent to 46 percent.
The North Carolina pickup was especially satisfying for national Democratic strategists who poured a great deal of money into the state to help Hagan. Dole, who held Cabinet posts in two Republican administrations before running for the Senate in 2002, outraged Democratd by running two ads in the last week of her campaign that tried to associate Hagan, a Presbyterian elder, with an atheistic group.
In New Hampshire, Shaheen bested Sununu in New Hampshire by 52 percent of the vote to 45 percent for Sununu with 90 percent of precincts reporting. Democrats tied Sununu to the unpopular policies of President Bush and benefitted from a state political climate that favored Democrats. "Unfortunately, the voters spoke and we didn't have enough votes," Sununu said in his concession speech.
In Virginia, Democrat Mark Warner trounced Republican James S. Gilmore III in a race between two former governors. Warner was so heavily favored to win the race to succeed retiring five-term Sen. John W. Warner (no relation) that national Republican officials essentially wrote the race off.
Warner's win - combined with Obama's victory, the first by any Democratic presidential candidate in the state since 1964 - marked a departure from Virginia's conservative moorings. "Virginians understand at this critical moment for our nation that we're not going to get our country back on the right path if we continue to look at every problem through the old idea of red versus blue or left versus right," Warner said in his victory speech Tuesday.
In Colorado, Democratic Rep. Mark Udall led Republican former Rep. Bob Schaffer by 52 percent to 43 percent with most votes reported. Udall benefitted from a nearly decade-long Democratic surge in Colorado and painted Schaffer as too conservative for the state. Udall, who has represented the liberal-leaning Boulder area for a decade, has long had designs on the Senate. In 2004, he briefly ran for Colorado's other Senate seat but deferred to the strong Democratic candidacy of then-Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar , who won.
Udall will succeed Republican Wayne Allard , who is retiring after two terms. He also will join his cousin, New Mexico Democratic Rep. Tom Udall , in moving from the House to the Senate. Tom Udall easily defeated Republican Rep. Steve Pearce to succeed six-term Republican Sen. Pete V. Domenici . This occurred on the same day that Democratic candidates took over two open Republican House seats in New Mexico, giving their party complete control of the delegation in a state with a long history of close partisan division.
Greg Giroux, Bob Benenson, Jessica Benton Cooney and Greg Vadala contributed to this story.