WASHINGTON — Two years after Barack Obama promised change in Washington, it's coming in a dramatic final torrent of campaign money, nasty commercials and voter rebellion that will answer not whether Nov. 2 will reshape Congress but how bloody the takeover will be.
The GOP is almost certain to gain control of the House, and the Democratic majority in the Senate is poised to drop to only a few votes, potentially putting health care back on the agenda and changing the prospects for immigration reform and energy and tax policy.
The 2010 midterm elections were expected to be intense but it's shaking out in dramatic style.
• In recent months, Republicans have greatly expanded their playing field into New York, Massachusetts and Wisconsin and other blue states, the conditions for a certified wave.
• Despite the recession, record amounts of money have poured into races. In the end, a total of $3.5 billion may be spent, the most expensive midterm ever.
• And there has been a wealth of colorful and improbable candidates with TV ads to match. The unforgettable line, "I'm not a witch," may outlast the candidate who said it, Delaware Republican Christine O'Donnell, whose struggles are a key impediment to the GOP takeover of the Senate.
"I'm not going to dare say it can't get more interesting because, oh yes, it can," said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
Amid the silliness and petty, personal politics is the poor economy driving the elections and mood for change. "When you've had 17 months of 9 percent unemployment or higher, the electorate is unhappy," said national Republican strategist David Winston.
The next few days will determine the fates of scores of candidates across the country, including major Democratic figures like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada who is struggling against tea party favorite Sharron Angle. In Wisconsin, Sen. Russ Feingold, long a champion for campaign finance reform, is fighting for his political life.
Florida's unusual three-way U.S. Senate race is no longer one of the nation's most interesting, with Republican Marco Rubio pulling away from independent Charlie Crist and Democrat Kendrick Meek. But the Sunshine State matters prominently in the U.S. House battle. At least three Florida Democrats could lose their seats.
Reps. Suzanne Kosmas and Alan Grayson have been hammered over their votes on health care and stimulus. Their Central Florida districts are closely split and the seats were held by Republicans just two years ago, so it would not be shocking if they change hands again.
But Republicans also have a good chance at taking out seven-term Rep. Allen Boyd of Monticello. Also in a tight race is Rep. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton, who has been unable to shake tea party candidate Allen West.
Florida holds one of the few bright spots for Democrats anywhere. An open House seat in Miami that was held by the GOP is a toss-up between Democrat Joe Garcia and Republican David Rivera.
There are six or seven such seats across the country, said U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, who is one of the leaders of the Democrats' national effort. That could bump the number of seats Republicans have to win to take the majority, from 39 to 45 or more.
"If this is going to be an anti-incumbent year," Wasserman Schultz said, "it's going to be anti-incumbent for them, too."
Even then, most experts think Republicans will take control of the House. "It would be a surprise if this wave doesn't match the 52-seat gain on election night in 1994, and it could be substantially more," handicapper Charlie Cook wrote Monday in his column in the National Journal.
All told, at least 90 seats are in play in the House. Republicans need 10 seats to capture the Senate, with as many as 19 up for grabs, but have stumbled in some contests with untested candidates like O'Donnell in Delaware.
Many analysts think the GOP can get seven seats, but some races remain too close to call, like the Colorado fight between incumbent Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet and Republican Ken Buck.
More than $25 million in outside money has been poured into that race, more than any in the country according to the Sunlight Foundation, showing how high the stakes are for both parties.
Outside interest money separate from political parties has flooded campaigns, with at least $153 million so far and growing. That's more than double the last midterm cycle, 2006. With much going to aid Republicans, it has leveled the advantage incumbent Democrats had in conventional fundraising.
Conservative groups, like American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS started by Karl Rove, have pumped tens of millions into TV ads knocking Democrats for health care.
On the Democratic side, unions are pumping millions into races. The Service Employees International Union has spent more than $11 million.
Campaign finance watchdogs are troubled because donors to these groups are often secret, their motivations not always clear to voters. A U.S. Supreme Court decision this year paved the way for corporations and unions to spend directly from their treasuries and to contribute to third-party groups.
"A very healthy dose of skepticism and an itchy TV remote finger are definitely key weapons for a voter in this election," said Dave Levinthal, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics.
With a week left, the TV ads are only going to get more prevalent. If you find yourself annoyed, remember that's the theme of 2010.
"You can sum it up in two words: voter restlessness," said Duffy, the political analyst. "They seem to have hit the limit of their patience."
Alex Leary can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @learyspt.