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Democrats Make Key Gains in Congressional Races

Elana Schor and Daniel Nasaw in Washington

Elizabeth Dole goes to the polls in North Carolina. Photograph: Chris Keane/Reuters

Democrats consolidated their hold on the US Congress today after scoring key victories in New Hampshire, New Mexico, Colorado, Virginia and North Carolina.

Senate seats picked up by Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire, Mark Warner
in Virginia, Mark Udall in Colorado, Kay Hagan in North Carolina and
Tom Udall in New Mexico brought Democrats within striking distance of
the 60-vote margin needed to help the president-elect, Barack Obama, overcome Republican obstruction.

Democrats are assured of at least a 56 to 44 majority in the 100-person
Senate, with races in Alaska, Georgia, Oregon, and Minnesota still too
close to call 12 hours after polls closed.

In the House of
Representatives, Democrats took pleasure in ousting the last Republican
congressman from New England, as Chris Shays fell to challenger Jim
Himes. Although Shays won 10 re-election contests thanks to his
moderate record, nationwide dissatisfaction with Republicans ultimately
brought him down.

The Democrats also took total control of the
New York City delegation for the first time in 35 years.They seized a
seat held by the Republican Vito Fossella, who was forced to resign
amid drunk-driving charges and allegations he fathered a child out of

Hagan's Senate victory in North Carolina was perhaps the
sweetest for the Democrats. A little-known state senator facing off
against Republican royalty in Elizabeth Dole, the underdog Hagan was
targeted with last-minute Republican attack adverts that accused her of
being godless.

But Hagan displayed grit that impressed her party, chastising Dole for "bearing false witness against her fellow Christians".

night was not entirely grim for congressional Republicans, who beat
back a liberal challenge to the Maine senator, Susan Collins. The
Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, also survived a
tough fight against the Democratic healthcare executive Bruce Lunsford,
quoting a famous British prime minister in the process.

Churchill once said that the most exhilarating feeling in life is to be
shot at and missed," an elated McConnell told voters. "After the last
few months, I think what he really meant to say is that there's nothing
more exhausting."

The Republicans also held on to the Nebraska
seat of the retiring senator Chuck Hagel, with Governor Mike Johanns
defeating a Democratic cattle rancher, Scott Kleeb.

The party of George Bush
also defended the seat vacated by the former Republican senate leader
Trent Lott, in Mississippi. Roger Wicker defeated the Democratic former
governor Ronnie Musgrove, who had hoped to ride a wave of
African-American support into the Senate.

Early returns from
swing states suggested that the Democrats had picked up at least 18
seats in the House and six in the Senate - close enough to the magic
number of 60 that would help the party pass more of Obama's agenda next

Getting 60 Senate votes would give the Democrats an instant
ability to beat back Republican parliamentary manoeuvres that often
stall popular as well as controversial measures. The Democrats
previously controlled the Senate by a one-vote margin.

The House
was less of a question mark for Democrats, who currently command a
35-vote advantage that allows them to approve most major legislation.

marquee congressional races are so close that vote recounts appear
almost assured, including the $40m (£24.75m) Minnesota race that pitted
the former late-night comedian Al Franken against a Republican
incumbent, Norm Coleman. With more than 2.4m votes cast, Coleman's lead
stood at a precarious 757 votes this morning.

The home state of Sarah Palin
played host to the most surprising twist of the night, as the veteran
Alaska Republican Ted Stevens edged closer to victory in his Senate
re-election race - despite his conviction last week on campaign finance
corruption charges.

Democratic challenger Mark Begich's hopes
were dimming with 99% of polling stations reporting. Stevens' lead
currently tops 3,300 votes. But even if Stevens prevails, he is likely
to face a crippling expulsion hearing from his fellow senators because
of his criminal conviction.

Speculation has flared in Alaska over
whether an expulsion of Stevens would clear the way for Palin to
appoint herself as the temporary successor to his Senate seat.

another remarkable development, the final results of the Senate contest
may not be known until next month. The Georgia Republican senator,
Saxby Chambliss, may have to face his Democratic rival, Jim Martin, in
a December run-off if neither candidate reaches 50% of the vote by the
time all ballots are tallied.

In the event that Begich, Franken,
and the Oregon Democrat, Jeff Merkley, win their races, the Georgia
run-off would represent the Democrats' potential 60th vote in the
Senate. That outcome would motivate Democrats to pour unprecedented
resources into defeating Chambliss. He remains a villain for many
liberals after winning his seat in 2002 by attacking the Vietnam war
record of his Democratic opponent, Max Cleland, who lost three limbs in

Meanwhile, a number of senators in safe districts won
re-election, including Democrats Max Baucus of Montana, Richard Durbin
of Illinois, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, John
Kerry of Massachusetts, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Carl Levin of
Michigan, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, and Jay
Rockefeller of West Virginia.

Republicans returning to the Senate
include Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Thad Cochran of Mississippi,
Susan Collins of Maine, Michael Enzi of Wyoming, Lindsay Graham of
South Carolina, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, Pat Roberts of Kansas and
Jeff Sessions of Alabama. Senator John Barrasso, appointed after the
Wyoming senator, Craig Thomas, died, was elected to fill the remaining
four years of Thomas's term.

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