Democrats pick up 4 Senate seats in early counts

The Democratic Party picked up four new Senate seats on Tuesday as Americans voted to give the party larger majorities in both houses of the U.S. Congress.
Democrats were being buoyed by the strong showing of presidential contender Barack Obama, who seized command of the race for the White House with a win over Republican John McCain in the big battleground state of Ohio. If Obama maintains the momentum, he would be the first African-American U.S. president.
Fellow Democrats were gaining strength in both the U.S. Senate, the upper house of the legislature, and the U.S. House.
In a major upset, a Democratic state legislator, Kay Hagan, unseated Sen. Elizabeth Dole, one of the biggest names Republican Party. The former Cabinet secretary had been criticized for spending little time in recent years in her home state.
In Virginia, former Democratic Gov. Mark Warner breezed to victory in Virginia over another former governor, Republican Jim Gilmore, in the race to replace retiring five-term Republican Sen. John W. Warner. The two Warners are not related.
In New Mexico, Democrat Tom Udall, son of former long-term congressman Stewart Udall, defeated a Republican challenger to win the seat being vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Pete Domenici.
In New Hampshire, Republican Sen. John Sununu lost to Democrat Jeanne Shaheen in a rematch that saw Shaheen referring to Sununu as Bush's "evil twin."
According to other preliminary counts, nine Democrats and eight Republicans retained their seats.
Among the Republican survivors was Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who outpolled millionaire businessman Bruce Lunsford to retain his seat. McConnell, the Senate minority leader, is a master strategist and could continue to be a thorn in the side of the Democrats.
The Democratic winners included Obama's vice presidential candidate Joe Biden of Delaware; he'll relinquish the seat if his ticket wins the White House.
Democrats were counting on heavy voter turnout _ and deep public displeasure with Republican President George Bush _ to capture more than 20 Republican seats in the House of Representatives.
Public concern about the U.S. economy increased the odds Americans would vote against Republicans identified with Bush, who has been blamed for the financial crisis.
An Associated Press exit poll found that six in 10 voters across the country said the economy was the most important issue facing the United States.
That should boost Democrats' chances, because would-be voters have consistently said they believe Obama and the Democratic Party are better suited to deal with economic problems than McCain.
The issues that McCain has most been identified with _ Iraq, terrorism and energy _ were picked by fewer than one in 10 voters in the AP exit poll.
Worried Republicans have taken to warning that the United States faces the possibility of strongly Democratic House and Senate memberships at the same time there's a Democratic president. They say that, unchecked, Democrats will go on a spending spree to expand social programs.
The Senate Republican campaign committee warned in an ad last week that liberals threatened to take total control of Washington.
"No checks. No balances ... a liberal agenda so scary its effects will be felt for a generation," the announcer says.
The final pre-election poll by Gallup indicated that Americans generally favor Democrats in Congress by a 12 percentage point lead among likely voters, or 53 percent to 41 percent. The survey was conducted Oct. 31-Nov 2.
In the Senate, essentially the upper house of the legislature, 35 seats are in contention.
If the Democrats can pick up nine seats _ a long shot that would require unexpected victories in the traditionally conservative South _ it would strengthen their majority from a slim 51-49 to an nearly unbeatable 60-40.
Winning 60 seats or more in the 100-seat Senate would be a major boon to the Democrats because it would make it nearly impossible for the opposition Republicans to use a filibuster to kill legislation. A filibuster, a procedural way to extend debate indefinitely and keep a proposal from coming to a vote, can be cut off in the Senate with a supermajority of 60 votes.
In Minnesota, Republican incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman faced a tough challenge by Democrat Al Franken, the former "Saturday Night Live" writer and actor who became a best-selling author and radio host on the fledgling liberal Air America network.
In Alaska, Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, who has been in the Senate for 40 years, faces a tough re-election fight from Democrat Mark Begich since his conviction last week on charges he accepted favors from a contractor.
In the House, the lower body of the legislature, all 435 seats are up for election. Republicans hold 199 seats, the Democrats, 235. One seat is vacant due to a death.
Some 29 Republicans in the House have chosen to retire, and Democrats are projected to win at least a third of those seats.
Democrats also have their sights on a number of seats with incumbents, including Alaska's Don Young; Colorado's Marilyn Musgrave; Connecticut's Christopher Shays; Florida's Tom Feeney; Michigan's Joe Knollenberg; Nevada's Jon Porter; New York's Randy Kuhl, and Virginia's Thelma Drake.
Among the few Democrats in close races are Reps. Nick Lampson in Texas, who is in a solidly Republican district; Tim Mahoney in Florida, who recently admitted to having extramarital affairs; Carol Porter Shea in New Hampshire, and Paul Kanjorski in Pennsylvania.
The Democrats, who picked up 30 seats in the House in the last election in 2006 and three more in special elections, are outspending the Republicans this year 3-to-1. They are expected to add at least a dozen seats in Tuesday's voting _ and could pick up 25 to 30 seats depending on the strength of the surge.