With early morning wins in the tightly-contested states of Missouri and Montana, and with Virginia tipping toward them, Democrats ended one of the most intense election nights in recent American history with control of the Senate in their grasp.

It was almost 3 a.m. in Washington when Democrat Jon Tester was declared the winner over Republican incumbent Conrad Burns in the distant state of Montana. That victory came about an hour after Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill won Missouri for the Democrats.

And as the night wore on in the last state of Virginia, Democratic challenger Jim Webb opened up a steadily wider lead in his campaign to oust Republican Senator George Allen.

If the Webb lead holds, it’s a 51-49 Democratic Senate.

Here’s how Democrats did it:

Every Democratic incumbent and Democrat seeking a seat currently held by the party was elected. That gave the party 45 seats.

Republican incumbents lost in the aforementioned Missouri and Montana, as well as in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. That gave them a 5O-5O split.

So it came down to Virginia. An Allen win would have created a tied Senate, where Vice President Dick Cheney would tip the balance.

But a Webb win would put Cheney on the sidelines.

And it looks like that is where the vice president will be standing.

Late into the night, Webb’s lead was tiny — only about 3,000 votes

But as the evening wore on, Webb’s margin slowly expanded.

By the time that Missouri and Montana were declared, Webb had opened up a 7,5OO lead. That’s no landslide, but it’s a bigger margin than can usually be upset by a recount.

If Webb’s lead holds, it’s a Democratic Senate.

There will, of course, be speculation about what Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman will do.

The Democratic nominee for vice president in 2OOO lost his party’s August primary to anti-war businessman Ned Lamont. On Tuesday, however, running as an independent, Lieberman beat Lamont.

Throughout the campaign, Lieberman pledged to caucus with the Senate Democrats. At the end, the senator teased that, “I would like to see this election today as a declaration of independence from the politics of partisanship.”

That may have caught the ear of White House political czar Karl Rove, who was surely pondering the question of whether he might yet come up with an offer that Lieberman couldn’t refuse.

But Lieberman quietly received assurances in October, as he opened a poll lead over Lamont, that Democratic leaders in the Senate would welcome him into their caucus and maintain his seniority. “Caucuses like to keep as many members as they can, not discourage membership,” noted Lieberman.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, is fully aware that he needs Lieberman. Lieberman is fully aware that his commitment to caucus with the Democrats contributed to his reelection win on Tuesday.

Bottom line: It looks as if the voters have decided to give the Democrats control of both houses of Congress.