Republican Seat in Great Peril

Posted July 29, 2008 at 7:05pm

The political future of the seat that indicted Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) has held for 40 years is as unclear as his personal future.

Stevens was already on track to face a tough race in November against Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, whom Democrats consider to be one of their best recruits of the cycle. Publicly released polls have shown Begich with a small lead over Stevens.

Meanwhile, the Republican primary is less than a month away, on Aug. 26. Stevens faces six opponents, including two candidates who intend to substantially self-fund their bids against him.

Some Republicans privately whisper that in a conservative state like Alaska, their prospects for holding Stevens’ seat might improve if the veteran Senator abandons his re-election bid.

But according to a statement from Stevens’ campaign, the Senator has no intention of stopping his campaign, despite the indictments.

“Senator Stevens’ campaign for re-election is continuing to move full steam ahead,” campaign spokesman Aaron Saunders said on Tuesday. “Our office has been flooded today with calls and emails from supporters urging the Senator to press on. The message from them is clear: Alaska needs Ted Stevens in the U.S. Senate.”

While none of Stevens’ six primary challengers are well-known, a couple of the Republicans are well-funded. Businessman Dave Cuddy has said he would put in $1 million of his own money, while attorney Vic Vickers intends to put more than $700,000 of his own funds into the race before the primary.

Through June 30, Stevens had almost $1.7 million in his campaign account. Begich had about $804,000.

Stevens’ pollster, David Dittman, said that because the investigation into Stevens and other prominent Alaska Republicans has been going on for so long, the indictment might not hurt Stevens that much in the polls.

“I don’t know how much difference it would really make right now, but it certainly wouldn’t be good for Sen. Stevens,” he said.

Dittman, who said he had not spoken to Stevens since the indictment, said he thinks Stevens believes he has not done anything wrong.

“I know Sen. Stevens and he doesn’t have a dishonest bone in his body,” Dittman said. “He loves the Senate. He reveres the institution.”

Begich released a statement commending the Senator for his time in office.

“The indictment of Senator Ted Stevens is a sad day for Alaska and for the senator after his 40 years of service to our state,” Begich said.

Under state election law, it is too late for Stevens to withdraw his name from the primary ballot. But if Stevens wins the primary, he could take his name off of the general election ballot and the GOP state committee would be charged with appointing a new candidate.

Alaska Republican Party spokesman McHugh Pierre said the party had more than a few names of candidates who have expressed interest of running statewide in the past.

According to one Alaska Republican, the state GOP might look to former state Sen. John Binkley, who lost the 2006 GOP gubernatorial primary to Gov. Sarah Palin. Binkley is wealthy and could comfortably fund a campaign against Begich.

Republicans have also named Palin as a possible candidate. However, she is being investigated by the Legislature for the recent firing of the state’s public safety director, allegedly for personal reasons. Even before the investigation, Palin, a first-term governor with high approval ratings, dismissed the idea that she would run for Senate.

But for now, it is the state Republican Party’s policy to remain neutral in the GOP primary even if the incumbent is running. Pierre, however, stood by the Senator, offering the party’s support.

“He’s done so much to help build our state and bring us along,” Pierre said. “We just really support him and hope he does what’s best for him and we support him in that process, whatever he chooses to do.”

In Washington, D.C., the National Republican Senatorial Committee declined to comment on Stevens’ indictment and the Alaska race. However, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee maintained that Begich has always been a strong contender in the race — with or without the charges against Stevens.

“Mark Begich has been in a good position to win this race since the day he announced,” DSCC spokesman Matthew Miller said. “He’s running an outstanding campaign and he’ll make Alaska proud in the Senate.”

Across the country, Democratic campaigns used the indictment as ammunition to call upon their GOP opponents to return campaign contributions from the Senator and VECO Corp. Democrats in Minnesota, Kentucky, North Carolina and New Hampshire, to name a few, issued statements demanding that GOP incumbent Senators return any funds from Stevens or the oil company that performed work on his home.

A comment from the campaign of health care executive Bruce Lunsford (D), who is challenging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), was illustrative.

“Over the course of his career, Mitch McConnell has accepted $13,500 in campaign contributions from Sen. Stevens,” Lunsford spokeswoman Allison Haley said in a statement. “Sen. Stevens and his potentially nefarious relationship with an energy company is a textbook example of what is wrong with Washington. Mitch McConnell should do the honorable thing and donate these funds to a charity here in Kentucky immediately.”