For Republicans itching to regain control of the Senate, Tuesday's election presents a rare opportunity. Only 10 GOP incumbents are on the ballot, compared with nearly two dozen Democrats and independents who caucus with them.
That means the magic number for Republicans is low. They need only a net gain of three or four seats to take over the Senate — and, assuming they keep the U.S. House of Representatives, consolidate their influence on Capitol Hill. Democrats need to pick up 25 seats to seize the House, a goal that political analysts consider all but out of reach.
So whether the votes break the Republicans' way in about a dozen close Senate races could have a profound effect on whether the "do nothing" Congress shakes its bad reputation and whether constituents should expect action on such big-ticket items as taxes, entitlement reform and energy policy.
Vying for Leadership
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who famously vowed to make Barack Obama a one-term president, has promised that if his party wins the Senate in Election 2012, "things will be different."
McConnell delivered a floor speech in late September decrying the Senate's Democratic leadership for failing to complete the most "basic work of government," from spending bills to budgets.
"So if the American people decide they want to make a change, the commitment I make to them is the Republican conference is going to pass a budget," he said. "It may be hard. We may have to twist a few arms."
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., isn't willing to give up his job just yet.
"The Republican Party has become the party of wouldn'ts and won'ts," Reid told the audience two months ago at the Democratic National Convention. "I have had a front row seat to watch the Tea Party take over the Republican Party. For 3 1/2 years, they wouldn't govern. They couldn't lead. And we shouldn't let them take over the Senate and the White House."
Senate Races To Watch
Despite the favorable election arithmetic at the outset, Republicans are foundering in several key races and seem unlikely to take control. More likely, they'll pick up two or three seats, and lose a few.
One such loss could come in Indiana. The reason: Tea Party favorite Richard Mourdock. The Indiana GOP nominee knocked out six-term Sen. Richard Lugar, a lion of the establishment and the most senior Republican in the chamber, after a heated primary challenge.
"If the Republicans lose that [Indiana] Senate seat, forget about taking back the Senate," says NPR political analyst Ken Rudin. "It's going to make it that much more uphill a climb."
Mourdock hurt himself with comments about rape and abortion, observing during a debate that if a rape victim becomes pregnant, that is God's will. Women's rights advocates called the comments demeaning, and his fellow Republicans called them a distraction. Mitt Romney's presidential campaign distanced itself from Mourdock's views. And his Senate opponent, three-term House member and moderate Blue Dog Democrat Joe Donnelly, pointed to the statement as evidence of Mourdock's extremism.
Mourdock's remarks came on the heels of another controversy, this one in Missouri. Rep. Todd Akin, the GOP candidate, is in a tight race against incumbent Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill. McCaskill had been considered one of the most vulnerable Democrats up for re-election this year, but Akin's comments about the unlikelihood of pregnancy after a "legitimate rape" drew national condemnation. Republican leaders and even members of the Tea Party Express pleaded with Akin to withdraw from the race, but he refused. Akin went on to compare his opponent to a "dog," fetching high taxes and red tape and bringing them home to Missouri.
For early clues as to the mood of the electorate, political analysts say they'll be watching a few close races.
Virginia: Two popular former governors are vying for a seat vacated by Democrat Jim Webb. Republican George Allen, a former U.S. senator and son of a professional football coach, is all but deadlocked against opponent Tim Kaine. Kaine led the Democratic National Committee — and many early polls. But the race has tightened in the final weeks before the election.
Massachusetts: The contest for the seat once occupied by Democratic stalwart Ted Kennedy is up for grabs. Republican incumbent Scott Brown is running to protect his surprise 2010 victory. Brown is racing toward the center, even featuring President Obama in campaign ads. His competition, Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren, in her first political race, is emphasizing her life's work in consumer protection — and collecting millions in out-of-state campaign donations.
Montana: Incumbent Democrat Jon Tester faces six-term House member Denny Rehberg, who is emphasizing his deep roots in the state, his experience as a small-business owner and his fiscal conservatism. Rehberg has a slight lead in the polls, but most analysts consider this race a tossup.
North Dakota: Republican Rep. Rick Berg has been holding on to a small lead against Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, a former state attorney general, who is trying to display her independence from Obama, who's unpopular in the state. Retiring Sen. Kent Conrad, a Democrat, decided not to run for a fifth term.
Nebraska: Former Democratic Gov. and Sen. Bob Kerrey is straining to prove he can go home again — after presiding over the New School in New York City for nearly a decade. Kerrey has been behind in the polls against Republican Deb Fischer, a state legislator since 2004. In the run-up to the election to replace retiring Democrat Ben Nelson, Kerrey has attracted national attention, at least, with endorsements from comedian Steve Martin and former GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel.
Other Races of Interest
Aficionados are also keeping their eyes on three other Senate contests of note.
In Nevada, incumbent Republican Dean Heller and Democrat Shelley Berkley are locked in a tight race, awash with millions of dollars spent on negative TV ads. The candidates could hardly be more different. Heller is a Mormon and a social conservative from a rural part of the state. He was elevated to the Senate after his predecessor, Republican John Ensign, departed following a sex scandal. Berkley, a U.S. House member representing the populous Las Vegas area, put herself through school by working as a cocktail waitress and a keno casino game runner. She has strong union support.
So does Tammy Baldwin, a longtime U.S. House member from Wisconsin who could become the first openly gay member of the Senate. Baldwin, a Democrat, is in a tossup with former Wisconsin GOP Gov. Tommy Thompson. They're vying to replace Democrat Herb Kohl, who is retiring.
And then there is former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, who would be the first Latino elected to the Senate from Arizona. Carmona is running as a Democrat against Rep. Jeff Flake. Flake, a staunch opponent of earmarks and wasteful spending in his House tenure, is hoping to keep the seat Republican after the retirement of longtime Sen. Jon Kyl.
In the U.S. House, Democrats have virtually no chance of picking up the 25 seats they need to take the reins — even though Congress is unpopular and unproductive. The wave election in 2010 that ushered in dozens of Tea Party Republicans is unlikely to recede. Many experts think the Democrats will net 10 seats, at best.
"The success of Republicans in redrawing the district lines of some vulnerable members, especially freshmen, has made it a very heavy lift for Democrats to get into the majority," says Thomas Mann, a longtime political scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
So Mann is looking at a more narrow issue on Election Day, "the fate of some of the most prominent Tea Party enthusiasts."
Many of those lawmakers have become household names. For instance, there's onetime GOP presidential contender Michele Bachmann of Minnesota. Bachmann is scrapping to hold on to her seat and grab a fourth term against challenger Jim Graves, a Democratic businessman in his first political campaign.
There's also Allen West, a Tea Party favorite in Florida, who is running in a new district this year after state GOP mapmakers initially put him in a more Democratic district. West, a retired Army officer and one of two black Republicans in the House, hit the headlines earlier this year after claiming at a town hall meeting that more than 78 House Democrats are "communist." Challenging West is Patrick Murphy, a Democrat and first-time candidate who worked for his family's construction company doing restoration work after the BP oil spill.
In Illinois, GOP incumbent Rep. Joe Walsh is down in the polls against Democrat Tammy Duckworth. Earlier this year, Walsh complained that Duckworth, an Iraq War veteran who lost both her legs in a helicopter crash, was talking too much about her military heroics. Duckworth responded by releasing a list of Walsh's bombastic remarks, which she called his "greatest hits."
Moments For History
Congress is saying goodbye to several prominent members who are retiring, including Democrat Barney Frank of Massachusetts, the first openly gay member of Congress; also Democrat Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and Republican Ron Paul of Texas, who have both run for president.
NPR's Rudin notes that the House races present any number of opportunities for "firsts." In New Hampshire, Democrats Carol Shea-Porter and Ann McLane Kuster are running to unseat the GOP male incumbents. If both women win, the state's entire congressional delegation, including its two senators, would be composed of women.
And in Massachusetts, there could be another moment ripe with history. Democrat Joe Kennedy III is running to fill the House seat long occupied by the retiring Frank. If Kennedy defeats businessman and Marine Corps reservist Sean Bielat, it would mark the return to Congress of the storied Kennedy family after the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy in 2009 and the departure of his son, Patrick, from the House in 2010.
Finally, in Utah, an African-American and Mormon woman named Mia Love has pulled ahead of incumbent Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson in the weeks before the election. Love, the mayor of Saratoga Springs, has been groomed for big things by GOP leaders and got a prominent slot at the national convention this year.
On The Radar
Three House incumbents up for re-election are on the radar of federal law enforcement. Republican David Rivera of Florida, Republican Michael Grimm of New York and Democrat Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois are all staring down FBI investigations of their spending or donor relationships.