Change has been talked about plenty this campaign season, by both sides. But if you're looking for real change on Nov. 4, you might want to look north to Alaska, where two of the country's most entrenched Republican Congressmen are fighting for their political lives in this strongly conservative state and home of Sarah Palin.
You've heard, no doubt, about Senator Ted Stevens, 84, who made headlines this week when he was convicted of seven felonies related to a multitude of gifts that he failed to report on his Senate disclosure forms; he is appealing the verdict and maintains his innocence, even going so far as to say during a public television debate this week with his Democratic opponent, "I'm not going to step down. I have not been convicted. I have a case pending against me, and probably the worse case of prosecutorial ... misconduct by the prosecutors that is known."
But less widely known is Representative Don Young, 75, the state's only Congressman. Young is under investigation by the FBI as part of the same wide-ranging, multiyear corruption probe in the Frontier State that led to Stevens' conviction. Young hasn't been charged or indicted, nor is it entirely clear what the investigation is focusing on. But Young had infamously close ties with disgraced Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and his actions on one transportation bill adding a provision about a Florida highway interchange after the bill was passed in a way that helped a major campaign donor was so egregious that fellow members of the House asked the Justice Department to investigate. In a testy February press conference, Young said the Florida community in question had asked for the new provision, and he refused to talk about the FBI investigation, saying his lawyers advised him not to. He did tell reporters, however, that they would all have "egg on [their] face" when the truth came out.
The two men have more than the FBI investigations in common. They are both unrepentant pork-barrel politicians, aggressively putting Alaska's interests over everyone else's (they both angrily balked at transferring funds for the notorious "bridge to nowhere" to areas affected by Hurricane Katrina). Stevens is undoubtedly more beloved, but they are both institutions in the state Stevens has served since 1968, Young since 1973 who haven't faced a serious political challenge in decades.
Both men have also had their words come back to bite them. Stevens took the stand in his own defense during his recent trial, and his irritated and impatient performance inadvertently bolstered the prosecution's case that he thought he was above the law. For Young, his penchant for brusqueness has made him enemies. His statements, including that environmentalists "are not Americans, never have been Americans, never will be Americans" and "when I see a tree, I see paper to blow your nose," are a little extreme, even in drill-happy Alaska.
The end result is that the two men enter the final weekend of their re-election campaigns with plenty of ground to make up. In the wake of his convictions, Stevens now trails his opponent, Anchorage mayor Mark Begich; since Stevens' conviction, one poll has put him 8 points behind and another a whopping 22 points behind. On the House of Representatives' side, Congressman Young is facing nearly the same long odds anywhere from 5 to 20 points behind Democrat Ethan Berkowitz. Sensing blood in the water, the Democratic Party has been pouring money into both races. The national Republican Party, by contrast, has left both GOP candidates to their own fates, as many of Stevens' Republican colleagues have called on him to resign, and even outlets like conservative website www.redstate.com are urging Alaskans to vote the two men out of office.
But it would be a mistake to count these men out. Stevens, the man Alaskans still call Uncle Ted with genuine affection, got a standing ovation last weekend at the massive Alaska Federation of Natives annual meeting (natives comprise 20% of the general population there). "For some, there's going to be a kind of a rally around the Senator," says Carl Shepro, professor of Political Science at the University of Alaska at Anchorage, calling it a "strong possibility" that Alaskans will view the conviction by a D.C. jury as a judgment passed in error by people from the Lower 48. And at least one voter has been cleared to vote for Stevens: a court ruled this week that despite his conviction, Stevens will be able to vote on Tuesday (he'll be banned from voting only after he is sentenced; and in case you were wondering, Stevens can technically serve in the Senate as a convicted felon, though it is likely that if he were to win re-election, his colleagues would force him out.
Young, meanwhile, has shown himself to be a gritty campaigner. When the rising young star of Palin's wing of the Alaska Republican Party, lieutenant governor Sean Parnell, announced that he would challenge Young in the GOP primary, many people thought that Parnell would win. But Parnell ran a lackadaisical and unfocused campaign, while Young hit the pavement and worked his constituents. In the end, Young won the primary by just 304 votes.
Both Young and Stevens may also catch an unintended break from Palin, who has called for Stevens to resign and is no friend to Young. Her appearance on the national ticket is the one bright spot for conservatives in Alaska this year, and it may drive Republicans who might otherwise stay home to the polls.
Which brings us to their opponents. Young is running against former state lawmaker Berkowitz, 46, who is a double minority in Alaska as a Democrat and a Jew. He has a goofy affinity for puns about Eskimoses and the Frozen Chosen, and was part of a small group of Jewish state legislators that called themselves the yamulcaucus. He's not a particularly inspiring speaker, and his wonkish demeanor and Harvard-and-Cambridge résumé seems a tad out of step with much of Alaska. But voters have now seen far worse from their Congressmen than a little bookishness. Berkowitz is running mostly on an I'm-not-Don-Young platform, and it's working.
Begich, 46, is the more impressive candidate. He comes from a famous political family in Alaska. His father was so popular that in 1972 he was actually re-elected to Congress when he was already dead (his plane had disappeared, but no body had been found by election time). Young was the opponent in that race, and Young's career in Congress started only when he won the special election held after the elder Begich was officially declared dead. The younger Begich has been running a fairly restrained race, on a typical Alaskan Democrat platform pro-gun, pro-drilling, pro-union. National issues like Iraq and taxes aren't being raised much, and on the most pressing state issues, like relief for rural Alaskans squeezed by outrageous energy costs, Begich and Stevens largely agree.
Only now has Begich started to hit Stevens directly on the corruption charges. In a virtual debate of dueling web-video answers hosted by the Anchorage CBS affiliate this week, Begich posed a written question to Stevens asking whether he showed poor judgment in receiving and not reporting the gifts. Stevens slapped down the question, saying the "Federal Government knowingly introduced false testimony" and accusing Begich of "negative innuendo" and "political smears." Begich's spokeswoman told me earlier in the week, however, that it would be political malpractice not to mention "the fact that our opponent is a convicted felon."
Still, it's a wonder that only 8 points separate Begich and Stevens in at least one poll. "Mark has not run a particularly inspiring campaign in my view," says Don Mitchell, a Democratic Anchorage attorney and historian. "He's just sat around all summer waiting around for a guilty verdict against Stevens." Now that he's finally got it, that approach may just be good enough.