Fed up with Washington and frustrated by the still-limping economy, voters Tuesday appear poised to hand control of the Senate to Republicans in a midterm election noted for its negativity, billionaire-funded advertising and in some states, outright voter suppression.
Some $1 billion has been spent on advertising in states with the closest contests, according to a new study from the Wesleyan Media Project, making it the costliest midterm election in history. Millions came from super PACs and other outside groups unleashed by the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision in 2010. They include Americans for Prosperity, a GOP-leaning group founded by billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch; NextGen Climate, founded by Democratic-leaning billionaire, Tom Steyer, which spent some $60 million on ads against candidates who deny the existence of man made climate change; and Independence USA PAC, founded by another billionaire, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, to help centrist candidates who support gun control.
"The fact is we're winning in Colorado, we're winning in Iowa, I think we're going to win in North Carolina and possibly in New Hampshire," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Preibus said. "For us it is about winning a majority, but ... it is in part about whether we're becoming a competent national party and I think we are."
Prospects were a bit brighter for Democrats in several governors' races across the country as Republicans elected in the party's 2010 wave election are struggling to hang onto their seats. At least one, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, has been trailing Democratic challenger Tom Wolf by double-digits throughout the year. Others Republicans, including Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, are in tight contests.
The environment is far grimmer for Senate Democrats. At least one likely 2016 Republican presidential contender, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, predicted a GOP-controlled Senate would be as combative and confrontational in its dealings with Obama as the heavily tea party-influenced House.
Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and managed to eke out a win in the heavily Republican 2010 midterms, tried on Monday to put a good face on the party's impending gloom. "A lot of these races are in the margin of error," Bennet told msnbc after a rally in Denver with Sen. Mark Udall, who trails Republican Cory Gardner in recent polls. "I know the conventional wisdom is that Republicans are going to take the majority. I'm optimistic."
The math is straightforward: Republicans, who currently hold 45 Senate seats, need a net pickup of six to win control. Democrats, meanwhile, are struggling to defend vulnerable incumbents across the South and in purple states like Colorado and Iowa while all but saying saying goodbye to their chances in other red states where incumbents are retiring.
Democrats have all but ceded seats in South Dakota, Montana and West Virginia to the GOP, leaving Republicans needing a net pickup of just three among 10 most competitive contests.
By Tuesday midday there were already a slew of reports of problems at polling places. In North Carolina, polling stations across several counties reported problems: one received the wrong voter rolls, two other stations allegedly received the wrong thumb drives for the voting machines, and at a fourth station, poll monitors reported one or two people telling them that they needed ID to vote in today's election, though a new law forcing voters to use ID in the state doesn't take affect until 2016. In Connecticut, four polling stations reported a slew of problems early Tuesday morning including missing registration books and poll monitors. Gov. Dannel Malloy, a Democrat in a tough reelection race, filed a complaint and has requested extended voting hours at those locations. In Georgia, the secretary of state's My Voter page -- where voters can find the locations of their polling sites -- was down for the better part of the morning. The phone line was constantly busy, as well; as of mid-day, the site appeared to be working consistently again.
Still other locations reported lengthy lines.
Follow the latest from msnbc reporters covering top contests:
COLORADO SENATE: Udall, the incumbent Democrat, was imploring Hispanic voters on Monday to help him save his seat -- a move seen as too little, too late by some observers in a contest Udall had tried to turn into a referendum on abortion rights. That strategy appears to have fallen short, as polls have shown Udall trailing Gardner by a few points for several weeks. Hispanics make up 21%t of the state's population and have helped contribute to its recent Democratic tilt. But Obama's decision to delay executive action on immigration reform is expected to depress Hispanic turnout in some key races.
GEORGIA SENATE: Democrat Michelle Nunn is in a neck-and-neck race with Republican David Perdue despite the state's bright red presidential hue. The daughter of former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn has tried to walk a narrow path, stirring up base voters while staying independent of Obama and his policies. Perdue, meanwhile, has been on the defensive over past comments supporting the outsourcing of jobs overseas. The outcome of this race may not be known until January, since the presence of a libertarian candidate could keep either Nunn or Perdue from hitting 50% -- sending it to an automatic runoff.
Michelle Nunn told msnbc yesterday evening she’s focused on prevailing on Election Day. But Democrats are prepared to dig in for the next two months if it does result in a run-off. Tharon Johnson, co-chair of Georgia’s Democratic coordinated campaign, says there are three main groups that her campaign would be depending on in a runoff: white women, moderate Republicans, and black voters.
Women voters in particular like that she has cast herself as a problem-solver who would get things done in Washington, Johnson says, but they're also trying to woo moderate Republicans by emphasizing that she would be politically independent, willing to break from her party in order to “bring Georgia values to Washington,” he said. Finally, the campaign would appeal to African-Americans by emphasizing issues like raising the minimum wage and keeping Democratic control of the Senate.
IOWA SENATE: The close contest between Republican Joni Ernst and Democrat Bruce Braley took a peculiar turn on Monday, after a quip made by retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin took center stage. Harkin was forced to apologize after calling attention to Ernst's looks at a rally last week, comparing her to pop star Taylor Swift. Ernst said she found the remark offensive and sexist, and the episode served as a distraction from Democrats' efforts to paint Ernst as too conservative on issues like abortion rights.
KANSAS SENATE: In one of the year's most unexpected turn of events, Republican Sen. Pat Roberts was fighting for his political life in one of the nation's reddest states. Greg Orman, a wealthy businessman running as an independent, was running even or ahead of Roberts in a state that has become alienated from the far-right policies of its GOP governor, Sam Brownback, who may also go down to defeat Tuesday. Orman has refused to say whether he would caucus with Republicans or Democrats if elected, setting himself up as a power-broker of sorts if elected.
Orman voted this morning in Olathe, telling reporters outside he saw today as "a tremendous opportunity for the voters of Kansas to send a message to politicians of both sides in Washington that you've got to end the gridlock."
KENTUCKY SENATE: With polls showing Republican Mitch McConnell opening up a lead over Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes in the final days of the campaign, McConnell made a brief campaign appearance Monday with Rand Paul, the state's popular junior senator and likely 2016 presidential hopeful. Grimes has kept McConnell, a 30-year incumbent, on his toes throughout the campaign, headlining enthusiastic rallies across the state. But despite her efforts to distance herself from Obama on guns, coal and other issues, Grimes faces a tough anti-Democratic headwind.
NORTH CAROLINA SENATE: Nowhere will the African-American vote play a more decisive role than in the North Carolina Senate race, where incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan is battling a strong challenge from Republican Thom Tillis. Confounding matters is a strict new voting law that prohibits same-day registration and out of precinct voting, which in the past have boosted turnout among minority groups in the state. The so-called Moral Mondays protests founded by the Rev. William Barber have drawn attention to the issue, and early voting in the state has spiked 21% from 2010.
FLORIDA GOVERNOR: Democrat Charlie Crist held a late rally Monday with former President Bill Clinton, this year's top go-to campaign surrogate for Democrats. Crist, a former Republican who served as governor from 2007-2011, is mounting a stiff challenge to incumbent Republican Rick Scott, who has been broadly unpopular in the state since he was narrowly elected in 2010. Scott, for his part, campaigned in the closing hours with other Republican governors including Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Rick Scott of Florida. Obama won Florida, the nation's most notorious swing state (see Bush v. Gore, 2000) in both 2008 and 2012.
WISCONSIN GOVERNOR: Democrats were making a final, full-on push to turn out base voters for Mary Burke, the Democrat mounting a surprisingly strong challenge to incumbent Republican Scott Walker, whose attacks on public sector unions and stewardship of a weak state economy has alienated many voters. With polls showing the race virtually tied for most of the year, turnout on both sides will be key. Gov Scott Walker started his Election Day just after 7:30 on a grey morning as he cast his ballot at Jefferson Elementary School. More than 170 people had voted in first half hour of voting hours. Burke had previously taken advantage of Wisconsin's early voting hours. The Government Accountability Board reported Monday that more than 289,000 people had already cast ballots. Complicating matters is a voter ID law the state passed in 2011 that was blocked by the Supreme Court from going into effect this time. Democrats worry that conflicting information about whether and what kind of ID might be required could dampen turnout.