RICHMOND, Va. -- Two former Virginia governors are in a fierce fight to represent the state in the U.S. Senate in one of the close races that could help decide which party controls the agenda for the next two years.
In a series of debates, caustic mailers and combative television commercials, Republican George Allen and Democrat Tim Kaine have been clashing over transportation funding, Medicare funding, health care overhaul and the future of Social Security.
"This is a very high-stakes election that will affect the country for decades," said Ted Brown, a professor of political science at Virginia State University, who attended a recent debate in Richmond.
Polls show the candidates are neck-and-neck, and Virginians aren't the only ones paying attention.
Nationally, the GOP needs only a net gain of four seats to wrench control of the upper chamber from Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and his fellow Democrats, who now control the Senate by 51 to 47 with two liberal independents.
Political scientists say they aren't expecting to see the Senate flip, but it's not out of the question. The possibility is enough to get GOP supporters to funnel millions of dollars to key races.
To GOP stalwarts, a win would mean the new Congress can send a backlog of GOP-backed bills to the president's desk. That's assuming the House remains in Republican hands, which is likely, but not a lock.
"So many bills passed the House, but Harry Reid won't release them for the Senate to vote," said Sallie Johnson, recording secretary of the Chesterfield County Republican Party, who held an "Allen for Congress" sign at the entrance to a recent Kaine-Allen debate in Richmond.
Those bills, which would be subject to another House vote in the new Congress, include legislation to prohibit taxpayer-funded abortions, reduce corporate tax rates, audit the Federal Reserve and repeal the Affordable Care Act, a top goal of many GOP candidates.
If President Barack Obama stays in office, he would be able to use a veto to stave off outright repeal. However, he couldn't fully implement the new health care law without funding, which a GOP-controlled Senate surely would block, said John McGlennon, professor of government at Virginia's College of William & Mary.
A Republican-controlled Congress wouldn't necessarily be in Mitt Romney's best interest either if he wins the White House, Mr. McGlennon said.
"He might actually hope for a split Congress, which would give him the opportunity to blame one chamber for his failure to deliver on some of his supporters' expectations," he said. "Some of the policy proposals being advanced by the social conservatives supporting him in this election could be very dangerous to his overall popularity."
Jeff McCall, a Depauw University expert in political communication, said Mr. Romney would have no one to blame for a failed agenda if he is elected president with a GOP Congress.
Americans generally don't like the House, Senate and Oval Office to be in the hands of the same party, said Diana Carlin, professor of communication at Saint Louis University and founder of Debate Watch, a national voter education program.
"If Mitt Romney gets an entire Republican Congress, are all the decisions going to be lock-step? Is there going to be enough debate?" she asked. "Any time you have one party controlling everything, the national check-and-balance system doesn't work as well as it's supposed to."
GOP stalwarts like Bretiss Zacek of Bonair, Va., however, believe the more the Republicans in Congress the better. Ms. Zacek said she fears that Democrats in Congress will allow the government to ration health care and won't provide enough medical help to sick children and the elderly.
"We need change in Washington," said Ms. Zacek, who held an "Allen for Senate" sign outside a recent debate in Richmond.
Mary Sue Oehler, a Democrat who also attended the debate, agreed in principle but said that simply flipping control of the Senate isn't the answer.
"Rigid partisanship needs to be shaken and gotten rid of. I think we need new ideas and, certainly, people who will compromise, not sign some crazy [Grover] Norquist agreement not to raise taxes and therefore be strapped into rigid promises when you're serving a country and you don't know what's going to happen," she said.
Republicans also have their eyes -- and their wallets -- on Connecticut, Wisconsin, Montana, North Dakota and Nebraska, where they think they've got a shot at capturing seats. They're starting to put their hopes into Pennsylvania as well, where challenger Tom Smith has been gaining on incumbent Bob Casey. Some recent polls put Mr. Casey's lead within the margin of error.
Democrats, meanwhile, are trying to protect those seats and to hit Republicans back where they're vulnerable: Massachusetts.
Democrats already have funneled $28.3 million to Elizabeth Warren's bitter battle with incumbent Scott Brown. That's more, by far, than they have spent on any other Senate race this cycle, according to data maintained by the Federal Election Commission. Republicans, meanwhile, contributed $24.4 million to Mr. Brown.
In campaign ads, Ms. Warren is telling voters in liberal Massachusetts that their ballots could make the difference in control of the Senate, and political scientists say she's right. Every seat counts this election, Mr. McGlennon said.
Democrats also are focusing on the race in Indiana, where GOP candidate Richard Mourdock's comment Tuesday during a debate that when a woman becomes pregnant during a rape "that's something God intended" has brought national attention to the contest. The state treasurer, who unseated six-term Sen. Richard Lugar in the primary, is locked in a close race with Rep. Joe Donnelly. Some Republicans have distanced themselves from Mr. Mourdock, and Mr. Romney said he disagreed with the comment, but would continue to support the candidate.
The outcome of Senate races also has deep implications for the judicial branch, said Christina Greer, assistant professor of political science at Fordham University in Manhattan.
At least two Supreme Court nominations are likely during the next presidential term and Senate confirmation is required.
"If Obama is re-elected and the Senate is Republican, he's going to have to put up nominees farther to the right. Instead of having a left-of-center judge we might have a more centrist judge or even one a little bit to the right," Ms. Greer said. "That's the only way he'll be able to get them confirmed."
If Mr. Romney wins and winds up with a GOP Senate, there's a good chance the court would overturn parts of the Affordable Care Act. A more moderate court already upheld the premise of the act, but a right-leaning court could inspire new lawsuits over nuances of the law and that could have far reaching implications.
• Bob Casey, Tom Smith have opposing views on trade. Page A-8
• Indiana candidate's rape comment could hinder Mitt Romney. Page A-8electionspresident - state
Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: firstname.lastname@example.org or 703-996-9292.