By CHARLES BABINGTON
WASHINGTON -- Republicans grabbed Senate seats from Democrats in Arkansas, North Dakota and Indiana on Tuesday, ousting two-term Sen. Blanche Lincoln.
Two tea party champions won high-profile Senate elections elsewhere, spearheading a likely cadre of libertarian-leaning Republicans who will press party leaders to be more adamant about lower taxes, less spending and smaller government.
Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida rocked the GOP establishment last spring by routing leadership favorites in party primaries. Then they beat back Democrats' efforts to paint them as too extreme, winning comfortably on Tuesday.
Arkansas' Lincoln became the first senator to lose in the midterm elections, falling to GOP Rep. John Boozman in a state that President Barack Obama lost by 20 percentage points two years ago.
Conservatives said Lincoln, who won her first two Senate elections comfortably, was too close to Obama, while liberals said she wasn't loyal enough. She originally voted for Obama's contentious health care bill, but later voted against its final approval.
Indiana voters sent Republican Dan Coats back to the chamber after a 12-year absence. Coats, who spent a decade in the Senate before stepping down in 1998, defeated Democratic Rep. Brad Ellsworth. The seat is being vacated by Democrat Evan Bayh.
In North Dakota, Republican Gov. John Hoeven easily won the Senate seat that retiring Democrat Byron Dorgan held for 18 years.
But Connecticut's attorney general, Richard Blumental, kept his state's open Senate seat in Democratic hands, fending off pro wrestling entreprenuer Linda McMahon.
Christine O'Donnell, another tea party darling, lost to Democrat Chris Coons in Delaware. She also had won a stunning GOP primary victory, beating longtime Rep. Mike Castle. But she failed to extend her popularity to the broader November electorate.
Paul, who beat Democratic state Attorney General Jack Conway, is an ophthalmologist who had not sought office before. His father is Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a hero to many libertarians. He won the seat vacated by GOP Sen. Jim Bunning.
Rubio, a former Florida House speaker, is not a political newcomer. But he defied his party's establishment nonetheless, refusing to stand aside for Gov. Charlie Crist in the Senate race. Crist ran as a third-party candidate, but Rubio defeated him and Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek. The Florida seat's previous two occupants were Republicans who stepped down.
In New Hampshire, Republican Kelly Ayotte kept her party in control of the seat being vacated by Judd Gregg. The former state attorney general defeated Democratic Rep. Paul Hodes.
Rob Portman won the Ohio Senate race, keeping a Republican in the seat that Sen. George Voinovich is vacating. Portman spent 12 years in the U.S. House starting in 1993. He later was budget director and then U.S. trade representative under President George W. Bush. Portman defeated Democratic Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher.
In Kansas, GOP Rep. Jerry Moran won the Senate seat vacated by Republican Sam Brownback, who was elected governor Tuesday.
Easily winning re-election as expected were Sens. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., Richard Shelby, R-Ala., Tom Coburn, R-Okla., Richard Burr, R-N.C., Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.
Republicans expect to cut deeply into the Democrats' Senate majority, even if they fall short of winning control.
If Republicans win 10 of the dozen Democratic seats in play, without losing any of their own, they will be the Senate's new majority party. A nine-seat loss would produce a 50-50 tie that Vice President Joe Biden, the Senate's official president, would break in the Democrats' favor.
Compelling story lines abound:
* The Senate's most powerful member, Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, could lose to a political outsider, tea party champion Sharron Angle.
* A tempestuous three-way race in Alaska could allow Democrat Scott McAdams to win a once-hopeless race for GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski's seat. Murkowski is running a rare write-in campaign after losing the Republican primary to another tea partier, Joe Miller.
* Three-term Democrat Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, was in severe danger of losing to GOP newcomer Ron Johnson.
Arguably the four closest races are for Democratic-held seats in Nevada, Colorado, Illinois and Pennsylvania.
An Angle win over Reid would mark a spectacular achievement for tea partiers, the libertarian-leaning movement that emerged last year and maintains an uneasy relationship with the Republican Party.
Republican Ken Buck of Colorado, another tea party favorite, has run a neck-and-neck race against Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, appointed to fill the remaining term of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar but running a strong campaign in his first-ever race.
The race to fill the open Illinois Senate seat once held by Obama pits Republican Mark Kirk, a five-term House member, against state treasurer Alexi Giannoulias.
In Pennsylvania, Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak beat Republican-turned-Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter in the Senate primary, but he has struggled against GOP nominee Pat Toomey.
West Virginia Democrats predict Gov. Joe Manchin will beat Republican John Raese for the seat long held by the late Robert C. Byrd.
If Republicans win all those close races, and avoid a McAdams win in Alaska, they will have to oust Sen. Patty Murray of Washington or Barbara Boxer of California to claim the Senate majority. Both incumbents were slightly favored in the final days, with Boxer seen as slightly stronger than Murray.
Democrats technically hold 57 Senate seats, but two independent senators caucus with the party.