In Alaska, the Young and the Restless

Posted May 3, 2005 at 6:30pm

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) launched an intriguing game of “guess my successor” recently when he said he might retire at the end of his current term.

He has since backed off those comments some, but it leaves the question dangling: Who will fill the slot Stevens has occupied since 1968?

Stevens will be 85 when his term expires in 2008. Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) will be 73 when his 16th term is up at the end of this Congress, and he will be forced to surrender his powerful chairmanship of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

A retirement by either would set off a scramble in a state that receives more federal money per resident than any other thanks largely to its small but tenured delegation.

Alaska’s three-person lineup saw its first substitution in more than 20 years when then-Sen. Frank Murkowski (R) was elected governor in 2002 and appointed his daughter Lisa to finish his unexpired term that December.

The governor no longer wields the power to fill Senate vacancies — a voter-driven byproduct of the controversy surrounding the elder Murkowski’s choice of a successor — so an unexpected vacancy would force a wide-open special election.

Murkowski just won her first full term last year, but Stevens was appointed to the Senate in 1968 and Young won his first House campaign in a 1973 special election to replace his 1972 opponent, Rep. Nick Begich (D), who posthumously won re-election over Young after dying in a pre-election plane crash.

Young seems to be gearing up for re-election next year. He has been hosting fundraisers and has more than $2 million in the bank.

Stevens has tempered his retirement talk, which was spurred by uncertainty earlier this year over whether Congress would vote to allow oil drilling in Alaska’s massive Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In a fit of pique, he appeared to suggest that he would retire if ANWR did not pass.

Now that Congressional budget writers have made ANWR-drilling legislation filibuster-proof, the likelihood that a bill will pass this year has increased substantially.

“I did not say [I would retire],” Stevens recently told Roll Call. “I said I would seriously have to consider whether I’d run again” if ANWR drilling does not come to fruition.

Stevens noted that more than three years remain in his current term and that a lot can happen between now and 2008.

“I’ll make my decision then,” he said. “Although what I said at the time was, if we keep getting frustrated, frustrated, frustrated like this, I’m going to have to reconsider why I want to stay in this institution.”

David Dittman, an Anchorage-based Republican pollster, said he does not think either Stevens or Young will retire soon.

“I think [Stevens will] stay there as long as he can,” Dittman said. “He loves it. He reveres the Senate. To him it’s a sacred institution that he would only leave if he thought it was being polluted or somehow corrupted and he couldn’t save it.”

Dittman said Young’s main concern likely would be whether he could find a worthy successor.

“There are people he is very comfortable with within the state Legislature,” Dittman said. “It’s not the same as it is for Stevens, it’s not as much about the institution. If he felt he had done everything that he could, he would be more willing to leave than Stevens.”

Nonetheless, Dittman predicted that as long as Young and his wife remain healthy, Young will stay in the House a while longer.

When Stevens and Young move on, a bevy of ambitious Alaska politicians will be waiting to jump into a rare open race.

The first Democratic name on most people’s lips for an open Senate seat is former Gov. Tony Knowles.

Knowles lost an expensive, high-profile campaign to Lisa Murkowski 49 percent to 46 percent in November, but he remains popular in overwhelmingly Republican Alaska.

Knowles is spending time with his family and indulging in his hobbies for now, but no one should believe that his lengthy political career has ended.

“If there were an open seat, I’d seriously consider running for the U.S. Senate,” he said in an interview.

The 62-year-old Knowles seems less enthused about a House race.

“I have given no thought” to a possible Young retirement, he said.

Ivan Moore, an Anchorage-based pollster who most recently conducted regular surveys on the 2004 Senate race for a local television station, assumes Knowles is just biding his time until a federal seat is vacant.

“He’s probably in a holding pattern until the next opportunity comes up,” he said. “Knowles would probably find it difficult to pass up an open House seat if it came first.”

Other Democrats to watch for either Stevens’ or Young’s seat, according to party insiders, include Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, who is the son of the late Rep. Begich; state House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz; state Rep. Eric Croft; failed gubernatorial candidate and former Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer; and state party Chairman Jake Metcalfe.

Knowles said that in open-seat situations, Democrats would have a good chance of capturing a federal slot.

“There are a number of real bright stars in the Democratic Party,” Knowles said. “You need a deep bench if you’re going to bring about change, [and] we have a great bench.”

Republicans say that Knowles is wrong. They also point to his age and undeniable status as his party’s strongest candidate for any statewide or federal office as proof that Democrats, long in the minority in Alaska, do not have enough younger candidates with heft.

“The bench is pretty weak on their side,” Dittman said.

Moore said the big question will be whether Democrats can ever get back into the game on the federal level.

“Do Democrats have a shot at breaking the stranglehold the Republicans have on the Congressional delegation?” Moore asked. “And I think Tony has the greatest shot at it and then it would be easier for other Democrats to win.”

On the Republican side, the list of those who would consider running is much longer, but only a handful of names are considered potentially strong candidates.

State Senate Majority Leader Ben Stevens would likely want to follow his father into Congress, as would former state Sen. John Binkley, former Anchorage Mayor Rick Mystrom, Lt. Gov. Loren Leman, failed Senate candidate Mike Miller and former Wasilla Mayor Sarah Palin. State Reps. Ralph Samuels and Jay Ramras should also be on the list, Republican sources say.

Trying to name names, even hypothetically, gets a little tougher because of the uncertainty surrounding next year’s gubernatorial race, political watchers agreed.

Frank Murkowski is deeply unpopular and has yet to commit to another campaign. Democrats sense an opening, and Republicans and Republican-leaning independents alike are mulling bids, regardless of what Murkowski decides.

“The whole thing depends on whether Frank runs,” Moore said. “If he doesn’t, there’s going to be a free-for-all on the Republican side with the frontrunners being [Ben] Stevens and Leman.”

That person would probably be the favorite in the general election and therefore would have to be taken out of the Congressional mix, he said.

The younger Stevens could find his family ties a major stumbling block.

“The only reason Ben Stevens is where he is, is because of who he is,” said Wev Shea, a former U.S. attorney for Alaska who ran a protest campaign for the Republican Senate nod last year against Lisa Murkowski. “He’s not his dad.”

Moore agreed that following too closely in the wake of the Murkowski appointment controversy would raise nepotism charges that could prevent Stevens from successfully running for the Senate.

Alaska Republican Party Chairman Randy Ruedrich said there is no point in handicapping potential candidates because he does not anticipate any openings soon.

“As far as I can see our federal delegation is intact for the long term, and we’ll continue to look forward to them serving us,” he said.