Democrats are daring to believe that their wildest dream might come true: They could end up with 60 Senate seats -- enough to stop Republican filibusters and control the Senate agenda.
Right now, each party has 49 Senate seats. Independent Democrat Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont caucus with the Democrats, giving them a bare majority, 51 votes. To get to 60, Democrats need a net gain of nine seats. Likely? No. Possible? Yes.
Democrats hold 12 of the 35 Senate seats that are up this year. Republicans hold nearly twice as many -- 23. So the Republicans are more exposed in a year when 52 percent of voters nationwide have a favorable opinion of the Democratic Party and only 37 percent have a favorable opinion of the Republican Party, according to polling this month by The New York Times and CBS News. A majority of voters (54 percent) hold an unfavorable opinion of the GOP.
Only one Democratic Senate seat appears to be at risk, the one occupied by Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, a Southern state that leans toward John McCain for president. Louisiana may have lost as many as 100,000 voters since Hurricane Katrina three years ago, most of them Democrats from Landrieu's base in New Orleans.
Ten Republican-held seats look vulnerable. They include three open seats: Two are in Virginia and New Mexico, states leaning Democratic in the presidential race, and are very likely Democratic pickups. The third is in Colorado, a presidential battleground that voted twice for George W. Bush, but Democrats have been doing increasingly well in state elections since 2004.
Meanwhile, Republican senators look very vulnerable in two states leaning toward Barack Obama -- Norm Coleman in Minnesota and John Sununu in New Hampshire. In the presidential toss-up state of North Carolina, Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole is now fighting for her political life, even though her challenger is a relatively unknown state senator. Democrats are accusing Dole of losing touch with North Carolina voters. A television ad run by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee simultaneously mocks Dole's Senate record and her age, 72.
"I'm telling you, Liddy Dole is 93," one elderly man in a rocking chair says to another.
"93?" his friend asks.
"Yup, she ranks 93rd in effectiveness."
"After 40 years in Washington."
"After 40 years in Washington, Dole is 93rd in effectiveness."
Oregon is a solid Obama state. So what's an incumbent Republican senator like Gordon Smith to do? Join the wave. A Smith ad asks, "Who says Gordon Smith helped lead the fight for better gas mileage and a cleaner environment? Barack Obama. He joined with Gordon and broke through a 20-year deadlock to pass new laws which increase gas mileage for automobiles."
Alaska is a solid McCain state now that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is on the Republican ticket. But Republican Sen. Ted Stevens is far from secure. He is being tried on corruption charges. His fate will be decided not by Alaska voters but by 12 jurors thousands of miles away in Washington, D.C. For the first time, District of Columbia voters will essentially get a chance to elect, or defeat, a United States senator.
In two Southern states likely to go to McCain, Republican senators are facing tough tests. Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi was appointed by the Republican governor to finish the remainder of Trent Lott's term. Appointed senators often have trouble holding their seats in the next election, and Wicker is facing a serious challenge from a former Democratic governor. In Georgia, Democrat Jim Martin, a little-known former state legislator, managed to raise more money last quarter than Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss.
The same thing happened in six other Senate races: Democratic challengers out-raised their Republican opponents, some of them by 2-to-1 (Democrats Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire and Mark Begich in Alaska). The DSCC out-raised the National Republican Senatorial Committee $103 million to $68 million through August.
The last time the Democrats held 60 Senate seats was immediately after Watergate, 30 years ago. As it happens, Bush's current job-approval rating, 24 percent, matches what President Nixon's was just before he resigned in 1974.
This article appears in the October 25, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine.