Oct. 14, 2008 -- An increasingly hostile national climate for Republicans has shaken up Senate races across the nation, giving Democrats a plausible shot at achieving 60 seats -- a filibuster-proof majority that would embolden policy ambitions in Congress.
The shifting landscape -- driven in large part by economic unease -- leaves Democrats almost certain to dramatically expand their 51-49 majority in the Senate, according to independent analysts and political strategists in both parties.
But whether Democrats can reach the 60-vote threshold depends on the outcome of races like the one in North Carolina, where Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole is seeking a second term in a race that was never supposed to be close.
GOP's Dole Fights for Political Survival
Dole is a party stalwart who represents a historically "red" state.
She served in Ronald Reagan's Cabinet, led the GOP's Senate campaign efforts in 2006, and is married to the longtime Senate Republican leader, former Kansas senator Bob Dole, the GOP's 1996 presidential nominee.
Yet Dole is caught in dangerous political crosscurrents this year. An unpopular war, a battered economy, and a tattered Republican brand leaves North Carolina voters -- like those in states across the nation -- particularly hostile to Republicans this year.
Sen. Barack Obama's campaign is pumping get-out-the-vote resources into the Tar Heel State, in its efforts to expand the presidential map. And Democrats are engaging in an aggressive effort to paint Dole as a political insider who has lost touch with her constituents.
"She is going against a headwind," said ABC News political analyst Cokie Roberts.
The case against Dole is similar to that used against many incumbents: That she has let her ties to her home state atrophy.
Dole's Democratic opponent, state Sen. Kay Hagan, has pounced on a recent media report that found Dole having spent as few as 13 days in North Carolina in all of 2006.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is running a provocative series of ads against Dole, meant to portray her as ineffective and out-of-touch. In one, two elderly men sit on a porch, commenting on Dole's "40 years in Washington" and arguing over whether Dole is 93 or 92.
Fight for Senate Power Spotlights North Carolina Race
The 93 refers to a Roll Call newspaper ranking that placed her as the 93rd most-effective senator; the 92 represents the portion of the time she's voted with President Bush.
But to many observers, it's a clear play of the age card against the 72-year-old Dole, whose opponent Hagan is 55.
Democrats say it's about job performance, not age. Sen. Chuck Schumer, the DSCC chairman, said the ad is effective because it reinforces voters' perceptions of their senator.
"She's not the Elizabeth Dole that was elected when she first ran, and the voters of North Carolina realize that and they just want to make sure that Hagan's OK," said Schumer, D-N.Y. "They're learning that Hagan's OK. ... It's a good race for us."
The Dole campaign calls the line of attack disingenuous.
"Sen. Dole opposes the president when she thinks it's the right thing to do, which happens to have been quite often," campaign spokesman Dan McLagan said.
Economic Crisis Shifts Political Landscape
The shift in the national landscape is particularly striking because Republicans had renewed optimism just a few weeks ago.
With their united calls to increase oil drilling -- and a popular new face at the top of the ticket in Gov. Sarah Palin -- Republican officials left their convention feeling much better than they had in months about their prospects in congressional races.
Rebecca Fisher, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said fundraising is still up; the committee brought in $6.6 million last month, some $1.5 million more than the party raised in September 2006.
Republican candidates, she said, continue to enjoy success in positioning themselves as independent of the party and its powerbrokers.
"The environment is not favorable, but I don't think the bottom's dropped out of our races," Fisher said. "Voters will make decisions on a candidate-by-candidate basis. I don't believe candidates will lose just because they have Rs behind their names."
McLagan said Dole always expected a close race.
Dole won her first campaign, in 2004, by nine percentage points, and North Carolina did send Democrat John Edwards to the Senate in 1998.
Republicans in Political Danger as National Mood Sours
But few expected as many GOP seats to be endangered this year.
Polls suggest that Republican-held seats in Virginia and New Mexico are as good as gone for the GOP, with the prospects in Colorado and New Hampshire only marginally better.
Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, the longest-serving Republican senator, is currently on trial on federal corruption charges, and a conviction would boost Democratic chances to unseat him in one of the nation's most Republican states.
Picking up those five seats would leave Democrats with 56 caucus members. Whether they can reach the 60-vote threshold depends on the outcome of a second wave of races, including seven where GOP incumbents are in unexpectedly tight campaigns.
Four of those races -- including the Dole-Hagan contest -- are in historically Republican states, where reelecting veteran senators is seldom in question.
Seats in Mississippi and Georgia are far tighter than Democrats ever anticipated, and even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is in a dogfight to keep his job.
Things are even tougher for Republican incumbents in Democratic-leaning states.
Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., announced last week that he was suspending all negative advertising, after a blistering series of attacks appeared to damage his standing against comedian-turned-political activist Al Franken.
With Coleman's support for the Wall Street bailout measure proving unpopular, public polls show Franken with a narrow lead.
The Minnesota race also includes independent candidate Dean Barkley, who served briefly as a senator in 2002 after being appointed to fill a vacancy following the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone by then-governor Jesse Ventura.
In Oregon, Sen. Gordon Smith is essentially even with Democrat Jeff Merkley.
Smith has burnished his moderate credentials by breaking publicly with President Bush on, among other issues, the Iraq war, and has sought to align himself with Obama in advertisements.
Maine Sen. Susan Collins appears to be in slightly better shape in her race against Democratic Rep. Tom Allen, but a national wave could change that, too.
Meanwhile, only one Democratic-held seat -- Sen. Mary Landrieu's in Louisiana -- is being seriously contested by the GOP this year.
Democrats Dream of Super Majority in Senate
Sixty votes represents an operating majority in the Senate, given arcane rules that allow a minority of as few as 41 of the 100 senators to indefinitely delay action on almost any matter through the legislative maneuver known as the filibuster.
Such a super-majority would make it far easier to confirm judges nominated by a President Obama and push through a Democratic agenda -- or to force a President McCain to work with Democrats in installing judicial nominees and top government officials.
In practice, a 60-member Democratic caucus wouldn't mean having enough votes to head off filibusters on all matters.
The current caucus includes two independents -- Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman -- in addition to several conservative members.
Lieberman has famously broken with his party on the Iraq war, and is campaigning for John McCain -- including speaking in support of the GOP presidential contender at the Republican National Convention this summer.
Schumer, the DSCC chairman, acknowledged the possibility of reaching 60 -- but said he isn't getting ahead of himself.
"[The chances are] better than they were two weeks ago, they keep getting better but you never -- you don't know until you get much closer," he said. "When I say my prayers at night maybe, but I don't know."