While change sweeps the nation, Alaska is voting for more of the same. With results from 99% of the state's precincts in, Senator Ted Stevens who on Oct. 27 was convicted in federal court on seven counts of corruption held a slim 4,000-vote lead over his opponent, Anchorage mayor Mark Begich. With about 50,000 uncounted absentee and early ballots, a definitive winner could be days or weeks away.
This, of course, seems a scandalous result. Stevens, the country's longest-serving Senator, was found guilty of concealing improper gifts he received from an oil-services company executive. Although he claims he is innocent and is fighting to overturn the court decision, Stevens' Senate colleagues, particularly from his own party, have made it clear that the 84-year-old will not be allowed to rejoin the Senate if his conviction is upheld. Although it has never happened before, the Senate could move to expel the Senator by a two-thirds vote.
The loyalty Alaska voters feel for Stevens (whose federal budget largesse left him with more presents to hand out than Santa Claus) may have predisposed them to believe his view of events. In a debate last Thursday with Begich, Stevens made one of the most laughable claims in modern political history, saying he had "not been convicted of anything," despite the federal court result. But Alaskans may have bought his contention that the case, decided thousands of miles away in Washington, D.C., was a noxious mix of prosecutorial misconduct and a runaway jury. Helping Stevens' argument was the revelation this week that a juror who vanished during the trial ostensibly to attend a family funeral had actually skipped out to watch a horse race in California. While the incident may not clear Stevens' legally, it could have obscured matters in the court of public opinion.
Stevens probably benefited, too, from a lazy Begich campaign. Even when Stevens got an improbable bump in the polls after he was indicted and Alaskans actually rallied around him, Begich didn't see fit to use advertising or his speeches to condemn his opponent. Alaskans are fiercely proud of their state and a little insecure about how they are perceived by the Lower 48; Begich could have driven home the point all summer that re-electing Stevens would give Alaska a black eye. He instead soft-pedaled the corruption issue until recently and waited around for a jury to deliver his October surprise.
But if the mantra in the rest of the country this election was "Throw the bums out!" in Alaska they were saying, "Let's keep our bums, thanks." Alaska Congressman Don Young, who spent a huge share of his campaign donations on legal fees to keep his nose clean in the face of an FBI investigation into his dealings with the same oil-services company behind the Stevens case, had a larger lead than Stevens Tuesday night he was ahead of Anchorage businessman Ethan Berkowitz by 7 percentage points. "Pollsters were wrong, and they've always been wrong," Young told the Anchorage Daily News. "They don't understand Alaska."
So now all eyes are on the Stevens race. If he wins, it certainly won't lift the heavy heart of Alaska governor and vanquished vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Relations between Stevens and Palin are icy. She ran for governor on a platform that railed against the kind of corruption that Stevens now represents. And now that the McCain/Palin ticket has been punched, it may add insult to injury for her to discover her beloved Alaska constituents actually prefer crotchety legislators who bring home the bacon.
Of course, there may be a simpler reason for what seems like a farcical outcome. Stevens himself offered it in an answer about his legal status during an online video debate posted on the website of a local television station. His seat belongs to a Republican, he said. The subtext was: Vote for me, and in the worst-case scenario, you can vote for another Republican in a special election if I step down. Voters may have followed that logic. While Democrats would have loved to have sent Young and Stevens packing, Alaska is a deeply red state, and Obamamania never penetrated. Certainly Alaskans deserve legislators who match their values and allegiances but they also deserve politicians who can serve them free of the taint of corruption.