With an early morning win in the tightly-contested state of Missouri and results that seemed to show Montana and 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.

Around 2 a.m., Democrat Claire McCaskill won Missouri for the Democrats.

As the night wore on, Democrat Jon Tester maintained a narrow but consistent lead over Republican incumbent Conrad Burns in the distant state of Montana. And in Virginia, Democratic challenger Jim Webb opened up a steadily wider lead in his campaign to oust Republican Senator George Allen.

If the Tester and Webb leads hold, which seems possible, 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, as well as in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. That gave them a 5O-5O split.

So it comes down to Montana and Virginia. Burns and Allen wins would have created a tied Senate, where Vice President Dick Cheney would tip the balance.

But Tester and Webb wins will put Cheney on the sidelines.

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

Early in the morning, Tester was up by around 1,5OO votes — a small but credible margin in Montana, where the total vote in the Senate contest was around 4OO,OOO

Webb’s led by around 8,OOO votes out of about 2.3 million cast in Virginia.

If the Tester and Webb leads holds and then withstand possible recounts, 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.