Ensign Weighs Role in Stevens’ Re-Election

Posted September 17, 2008 at 6:24pm

The National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee will continue to work to re-elect Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who will begin trial later this month for allegedly providing false information on his financial disclosure forms.

But NRSC Chairman John Ensign (Nev.) declined to say Wednesday whether the committee planned to send staff members or other resources to Alaska, adding he would “not telegraph what we’re going to do” in that race or any other Senate contest.

Most recently, the NRSC paid for a survey by Moore Information to test Stevens’ popularity in Alaska. And at least one Alaska voter said she had been surveyed about the Senate race by a polling firm that provides surveys for the NRSC’s independent expenditure arm, among many other clients.

Stevens is in the re-election race of his life against Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, who Democrats consider a top recruit. Although Stevens has represented the state for seven terms, his re-election bid has been punctuated by his upcoming trial in Washington, D.C., which he hopes will vindicate him before Election Day.

While early polls showed Begich leading Stevens by double digits, more recent surveys show a closer race. The NRSC’s poll of 500 registered voters taken Sept. 2-3 showed Stevens leading Begich 46 percent to 44 percent. The margin of error was 4 percent.

Even Ensign said he was surprised by Stevens’ strong showing in that poll, which he only partially attributed to Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) joining the national GOP ticket.

In a news conference Wednesday, the Nevada Republican reiterated his committee’s support for Stevens.

“The trial is outside of our control,” Ensign said. “And everybody in America is innocent until proven guilty, and the trial is going to take its own separate path. … Our job is to make sure we’re supporting Ted, which we are.”

In a phone interview later Wednesday, Ensign would not say whether a potential guilty verdict could be used as ammunition against his Senate colleagues who donated to the NRSC this cycle — and therefore, indirectly Stevens — and are running for re-election this cycle.

“We don’t answer hypotheticals,” Ensign said. “We’ll have to deal with that when and if it comes.”

Ensign would not say if the NRSC planned to spend any of its resources in Alaska or send staff to the state.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s independent expenditure arm launched its first radio and television advertisements in Alaska — both of which highlighted allegations of corruption against Stevens.

Alaska Republican Party spokesman McHugh Pierre said he had not seen any national Republican Party staff in Alaska, though the Republican National Committee had given some minimal support to the state GOP Victory Fund.

“I’ve seen some minimal support for our victory operation as far as dollars are concerned,” Pierre said.

The state GOP, which also supports Stevens’ re-election, has four paid employees in its office, not including the party chairman, who works as a volunteer.

But at least one Alaska voter said she was recently contacted by the Tarrance Group, a national polling firm that the NRSC’s IE group, among many other GOP campaigns, uses for surveys. NRSC spokeswoman Rebecca Fisher did not return a request for comment about whether the committee’s IE paid for the poll.

Pat Hiatt, a retired teacher from Anchorage and active supporter of Begich, said she received a call from a polling firm on Monday. After asking about her voting history, a sample of political issues and her preference in the Senate race, Hiatt said the live pollster asked her a series of questions with negative connotations about Begich.

“Do you agree that Sarah Palin and Ted Stevens have been unfairly attacked by the liberal media, when in fact they have done a lot for Alaska?” said Hiatt, quoting the live caller.

Every other question, she said, was about whether she would be less likely to vote for Begich if she knew that violent crimes increased in Anchorage during his tenure, that he evicted tenants in some of his rental units around Christmas time or that he defaulted on 30 of his real estate properties.

“They were trying to make me think that Mark Begich was doing some very unpleasant activities towards people and causing grief in our city,” Hiatt said.

Hiatt said she determined the Tarrance Group administered the survey after asking the caller if she could speak to a supervisor.

Stevens’ campaign pollster David Dittman said he had no knowledge of that poll — or any other Tarrance Group poll — being conducted in Alaska on the Senate race. He said he had not seen any evidence, including television advertisements or additional polls, that the national Republicans were putting resources into the Senate race.

What’s more, Dittman said he could not be sure whether the survey was a push poll or just message testing among voters.

“Sometimes that is referred to as message testing and they’re testing those messages to see how people respond to them,” Dittman said.

Regardless of the medium, Dittman said he personally hopes the national parties stay out of Alaska and Stevens’ re-election bid.

“I personally hope they don’t,” he said. “I know in the past, in other campaigns when they’ve done it, sometimes they have different attitudes, they have a gunslinger attitude.”