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NATION

So many states, so many chances for Democrats to control Congress

November 04, 2008|Richard Simon | Simon is a Times staff writer.

WASHINGTON — Two years ago, Democrats wrested control of Congress from Republicans. Today, they are expected to expand their House and Senate majorities.

Senate Democrats, who hold a 51-49 majority with the help of two independents, hope to wind up with the 60 seats needed to overcome Republican-led filibusters, a threshold they have not reached since Jimmy Carter was president.

One complication is the party's tension with Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, one of the independents. Though he caucuses with the Democrats, Lieberman supported Republican John McCain for president and spoke at the GOP convention.

Still, Lieberman's generally Democratic leanings on domestic issues suggest he would help the party reach 60 votes to overcome many filibusters. Even if they fall short of 60 seats, Democrats might be able to win support from some moderate Republicans.

In the Senate, 35 seats are up for election; Republicans are defending 23, compared with 12 for Democrats.

In the House, Democrats outnumber Republicans 235 to 199, with one vacancy, and are projected to add 20 to 30 seats -- maybe more. All 435 House seats are up for grabs.

Here are some key races to watch:

Alabama: In this red state, Jay Love, the Republican candidate for the 2nd District House seat, is portraying opponent Bobby Bright as too liberal. Bright, the mayor of Montgomery, has been touting his conservative credentials and stands a good chance of becoming the first Democrat in decades to win this seat.

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Alaska: Can Ted Stevens pull it off? The longest-serving Republican senator is trying to win reelection after his conviction on corruption charges. Stevens, who plans to appeal the jury's decision, faces Democrat Mark Begich, the mayor of Anchorage. If the 84-year-old Stevens is reelected, he probably will face an expulsion vote by his Senate colleagues.

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Connecticut: Rep. Christopher Shays is trying to hang on as the last Republican House member from New England. He faces Democrat Jim Himes, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker. Shays, a 21-year House veteran who has campaigned as an independent-minded lawmaker, has dodged tough Democratic assaults before. But a large turnout of Democrats energized by Barack Obama's candidacy could cost Shays his seat this time.

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Georgia: Just months ago, Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss appeared to be cruising to reelection. But a bad economy, President Bush's unpopularity and the prospects of a surge in African American voters have given Democrat Jim Martin a good shot. The Republican's ouster would delight Democrats, still bitter that Chambliss won in 2002 after attacking Democrat Max Cleland, a Vietnam veteran and triple amputee, as soft on national security.

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Indiana: Round 4 in the long fight between Democrat Rep. Baron P. Hill and Republican Mike Sodrel. Hill won the seat in 2002, but Sodrel captured it in 2004 in a victory attributed to Bush's coattails. Hill took it back in the 2006 Democratic takeover of Congress. With Bush's unpopularity rivaling President Nixon's, Hill is expected to hold on to the seat this year.

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New York: It's not entirely a cakewalk for Democrats this year. Just ask first-term Democrat Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, one of a number of Democrats fighting to hold on to their seats. The 20th District race has become the most expensive in the House, with nearly $10 million spent. Gillibrand unseated a Republican incumbent in 2006 and faces a strong challenge from Sandy Treadwell, a former New York secretary of state.

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North Carolina: Elizabeth Dole has been called Transportation secretary, Labor secretary, Red Cross chief, presidential candidate and senator. Now, she can add "endangered." Dole faces a strong challenge from Democrat Kay Hagan, a state senator, in an increasingly nasty race. Dole aired an ad tying Hagan to an atheist group. Hagan responded by suggesting Dole was "bearing false witness against fellow Christians."

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Oregon: Gordon H. Smith, the West Coast's only Republican senator, has run a TV ad linking himself to Obama, who is expected to carry the state. Never mind that Obama has endorsed -- surprise! -- Democrat Jeff Merkley, speaker of the state House of Representatives. Smith is hoping to show that he reaches across the aisle to work with Democrats.

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Texas: Democrat Nick Lampson lost his House seat in the redrawing of congressional district boundaries engineered by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Then he came back to win DeLay's old seat in 2006, in a suburban Houston district. But Lampson faces a strong challenge from Republican Pete Olson, a former Senate staff member.

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Wyoming: This could be the state that shows how bad the year can get for the GOP. Republicans have held the state's lone House seat since Vice President Dick Cheney captured it from a Democrat in 1978. This year, the state is expected to support McCain for president. But Democrat Gary Trauner has a shot at defeating Republican Cynthia Lummis to succeed retiring Republican Rep. Barbara Cubin.

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richard.simon@latimes.com

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