WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans vigorously pursued their last, longshot chances for taking control of the Senate — Pennsylvania topped their list — as Democrats remained cautiously optimistic that they'd retain their narrow majority after Tuesday's suspense-filled elections.
In the final days of a caustic campaign marked by negative ads, more than $1 billion in spending and the direct impact of a close White House race between President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney, Democrats who were once considered a sure-fire bet to lose the Senate were upbeat about flipping Republican seats in Maine and Massachusetts and holding most of the 23 seats they're defending this year.
GOP candidates' statements on rape and abortion proved to be self-inflicted political wounds that could cost the party Indiana and undermined its chances of taking down a vulnerable Democrat in Missouri. Incumbent Democrats considered in jeopardy at the start of the election cycle managed to counter a barrage of outside spending and were on track to keep their seats in Michigan and Florida.
Democrats hold a 53-47 Senate edge but Republicans are defending only 10 seats Tuesday. Retirements in 10 states proved the most vexing for both parties.
Democrats were counting on holding the open seat in Hawaii, were unsure whether former Sen. Bob Kerrey's late surge would work in Nebraska and considered Virginia, Wisconsin and North Dakota toss-ups. New Mexico leaned Democratic but was a bit uncertain after the national parties left the two candidates — Democratic Rep. Martin Heinrich and former GOP Rep. Heather Wilson — to fend for themselves.
Among the GOP open seats, Republicans had written off Maine, chalked up Texas and warily but confidently counted Arizona.
In Connecticut, Republican and former wrestling executive Linda McMahon spent more than $42 million of her own wealth on the race for retiring independent Sen. Joe Lieberman's seat, but it looked like it would be insufficient against the number of Democratic votes. On the final weekend, Obama stepped in with his first campaign ad appeal for Democratic Rep. Chris Murphy.
The ever-tight presidential race, the possibility of a Romney win and the potential boost or drag of the candidates on down-ballot races meant few were offering predictions on Senate control. Both parties grabbed at newfound opportunities like Nebraska and Pennsylvania.
First-term Sen. Bob Casey in Pennsylvania wasn't on anyone's lineup of vulnerable Democrats six months ago, especially after Republicans nominated little-known businessman Tom Smith. But the coal executive spent more than $17 million of his own money and cut into Casey's edge. The National Republican Senatorial Committee and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce jumped in with money and ads in the final week.
"I think a race that everyone here in Pennsylvania assumed was safe for Sen. Casey no longer is," said Gene Barr, president of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry. "It probably leans Democratic. The Casey name here is well-known for decades. His father was governor and Sen. Casey has run statewide before, but it is one that has clearly tightened up."
Some Democrats suggested that Casey has run a lackluster campaign, a notion his campaign manager emphatically dismissed.
"That is one of the ridiculous phony narratives that have been written," said Larry Smar. "When the press, pundits thought that this wouldn't be a race and weren't covering the race, we were the ones pointing out that Smith had lot of money and he was going to spend it. It's pretty ridiculous when they weren't paying attention to the race all year to try to push the blame on us."
Casey's latest ad appeals directly to the state's millions of seniors, promising to strengthen Medicare and "never stop fighting for Pennsylvania."
A look at the competitive races that will decide Senate control:
—Maine: In a rare case of bipartisanship, Democrats and Republicans agree that independent Angus King likely will win the three-way race against Republican Charlie Summers and Democrat Cynthia Dill. It will be a loss for Republicans who had expected Sen. Olympia Snowe to sail to a fourth term, but the moderate had enough of Washington's rancor and gridlock. King has not said whether he would caucus with Democrats or Republicans and the outcome of the presidential election is certain to have a bearing on any decision. However, the expectation has been that he would side with the Democrats after Republicans such as Karl Rove's group and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent hundreds of thousands of dollars criticizing him.