Can Ted Stevens Still Win Alaska?

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Mark Wilson / Getty

Senator Ted Stevens is escorted out of the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse on Oct. 27

Uncle Ted, the Senator with an avuncular penchant for gift-giving — $3.4 billion in federal earmarks for Alaska since 1995 alone — has been convicted of receiving a few freebies of his own. Stevens, 84, was found guilty Monday on seven felony counts for failing to report $250,000 in improper gifts he received from Bill Allen, the disgraced executive of an oil-services company.

It was a sudden end to what had been a lurching trial: at first fast-tracked at the defense's request (featuring an ill-advised appearance on the witness stand by an impatient Stevens), the trial threatened to get bogged down in jury deliberations, particularly when a juror left for personal reasons. But a replacement juror arrived, and in less than a day there was a unanimous guilty verdict, which could — but likely won't — result in up to five years in prison for each count.

If this was a crippling blow to his legacy, Stevens didn't let on. The Senator, who is currently up for re-election, treated the verdict like it was just another attack ad in a political season, issuing a statement that hit right back at "prosecutorial misconduct." He promised, as he has in the past, to fight for his election to the finish, and to "fight this unjust verdict with every ounce of energy I have." Said Stevens: "I am innocent." He will head to Alaska later this week, presumably to take part in a debate with his opponent on Thursday.

All of which begs the question: Can he actually win now?

The Democrats are salivating at the idea that a jury of their peers may have cleared the way for a Democratic supermajority of 60 seats in the Senate. But Stevens' chances are better than you might think. The latest polls, from earlier this month, show him in a nearly dead heat with his Democratic challenger, Anchorage mayor Mark Begich. The numbers will change in the wake of the verdict, but it's worth noting that those polls had actually been moving Stevens' way, slightly, since he was indicted in July. It's possible that in Alaska, even a sullied Ted Stevens brand could be enough to win him election. After all, with oil prices tanking, voters could well buy Stevens' implied argument for his candidacy — that the state will have a hard time building the kinds of roads, bridges and schools they've come to expect without Stevens there to lard up the federal budget.

But for some of Stevens' associates, there are signs of resignation. Longtime friend Jack Roderick (the two men once practiced law together in the '60s) sounded subdued when reached at his Anchorage home. "It's sad," he said. "It's just sad on a personal level." Roderick, however, defended his old friend's motivations. "No question he showed bad judgment to get associated with a guy like Bill Allen. He got sloppy," said Roderick. "But he didn't intentionally do any of this."

Stevens' image problems did not, however, begin with the trial. Allegations of his friends and relatives benefiting from federal largesse have circulated in Alaska for years. While his trial was underway, a story broke about $2.7 million in federal funding that Stevens directed to be used to pave a rural road in his town that leads to his favorite restaurant — a restaurant owned by a longtime friend and campaign contributor.

Still, to only focus on Stevens' venality is to miss the deep — and requited — love he had for his constituents during his more than 40 years in public office. Don Mitchell, an Anchorage attorney who for years was the Washington, D.C., council for the influential Alaska Federation of Natives, is no fan of Stevens' politics. But he called Stevens a "stalwart friend" of the 100,000 Alaska natives. For three decades, Stevens made a point of channeling appropriations to fund projects that mattered most to the state's native communities. At the federation's annual meeting this past weekend — 2,000 native leaders in a massive convention hall in Anchorage — Stevens sent a video message apologizing for having to miss the meeting, and asked for the prayers of Alaska natives. At the end of his video, says Mitchell, the entire audience rose and gave Stevens a standing ovation. Their solidarity could be important in the election — Alaska natives comprise one-sixth of the state's population.

If you need more proof of Stevens' power, just look at Sarah Palin's mild response to the verdict. She hasn't been shy in the past about calling on tainted politicians to step down; she won the governor's race by running loudly against the corrupt old-boys' network. With Stevens, she was more circumspect. It was a "sad day for Alaska," she said in a statement, adding that the verdict was a reflection of "the culture of corruption I was elected to fight." She cryptically ended with the hope that Stevens "will do what is right for the people of Alaska." Palin is still the most popular politician in Alaska — a throaty defense of Stevens could help him carry the day, while a call for his resignation could compound his worries. Her statement did neither, leaving Stevens — and the Senate race — still up for grabs.

In the meantime, don't expect Stevens to be waiting for permission from anyone to defend his name and his legacy. As his old friend Roderick put it, "Yeah, he'll keep on fighting. That's the only thing he knows to do."

(Click here for a gallery of indicted Senators.)