GOP Senate Campaign May Feel Fallout of Stevens Verdict

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Anchorage Daily News (Alaska)

GOP Senate Campaign May Feel Fallout of Stevens Verdict

by
Sean Cockerham

Republican Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska departs the U.S. District Court in Washington in this October 22, 2008 file photo. (Kevin Lamarque/Files/Reuters)

A defiant Sen. Ted Stevens is returning to Alaska on Wednesday to
resume his re-election campaign, despite being convicted of felonies
that carry the potential of years in prison.

Stevens, 84, faces a challenge of historic proportions with just one
week before the election. He'd be the first convicted U.S. senator ever
elected, on appeal or not.

Alaska
pollsters and political consultants were skeptical of Stevens' chances
Monday but not prepared to count out the longest serving Republican in
Senate history. Several pointed out that, contrary to most predictions,
Stevens surged in the polls after his indictment in late July, coming
from far behind to what's essentially a tie with Democratic opponent
Mark Begich in most recent polls.

"That
had to be people rallying to Ted against these Outside influences
attacking their senator. It's possible, extremely unlikely, that with
the conviction we'll get another backlash against this Outside
influence," said Anchorage pollster Marc Hellenthal.

The mood at
Stevens' Anchorage campaign headquarters was one of stunned horror
immediately after the conviction came down mid-day Monday. People
milled inside while two young volunteers stood in the cold guarding the
door. One of them looked close to tears.

Hours later, the news had settled in. The guards were gone, the
campaign ordered Moose's Tooth pizza for its workers and Stevens'
backers started talking about what's next.

"I
think it will be a battle but we're going to throw every ounce of
effort into doing so," said political consultant Art Hackney, who is
working on the Stevens campaign.

Hackney said it's going to be a
"nonstop campaigning, very aggressive," once Stevens gets back to
Alaska. He said the campaign has to ask people to withhold their
judgment.

"And basically what I think most people understand,
it's really three words -- prosecutorial misconduct and appeal," he
said. "And other than that it's campaigning on the record of what he's
done and what he can do."

SHARP DIVIDE

Larry Sabato, who
publishes the nationally watched Crystal Ball forecasts of
congressional races, said he can't imagine Alaskans would re-elect a
U.S. senator just convicted of seven felonies.

"It would make Alaska a national laughingstock," said Sabato, who directs the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

The National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee appears to have given up on Stevens.

"Ted
Stevens served his constituents for over 40 years and I am disappointed
to see his career end in disgrace," said NRSC Chairman John Ensign, a
senator from Nevada.

Carl Shepro, a political science professor
at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said that kind of talk might be
premature. Shepro said he believes Stevens still has a real chance to
win re-election next week despite the conviction.

"Right now I'm
in Fairbanks. It's pretty amazing the advertisements for him and the
testimonials and stuff," Shepro said. "It's certainly difficult to
think they are just going to turn around because of the conviction, and
with appeals this could drag out for years."

Stevens' Democratic
opponent, Anchorage Mayor Begich, was playing it safe on Monday. Begich
read a 14-second statement that said it's been a tough year but time to
move on. He then refused to answer any questions from reporters.

Democratic
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who recruited Begich to
run, wasn't feeling so shy. He called on Stevens to "now respect the
outcome of the judicial process and the dignity of the United States
Senate." The Alaska Democratic party said Stevens should resign.

U.S.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Stevens must
face the consequences of the verdict and will be held accountable so
public trust can be restored.

But Alaska's other U.S. senator,
Republican Lisa Murkowski, said the prosecution committed several
gaffes during the trial and she'll stand with Stevens as he pursues his
appeal.

RURAL SUPPORT

There's nothing in the U.S. Constitution or Senate rules to keep a convicted felon from being a senator.

Stevens' colleagues could expel him with a two-thirds vote if he's re-elected, or even before his current term ends in January.

If Stevens resigned or was expelled, the seat would stay empty until a special election within 90 days.

Todd
Larkin of North Pole, who has been active in the state Republican
Party, said Stevens could win, and then resign, allowing the
Republicans to put up a candidate in the special election. That's a
potential scenario state party officials are talking about to keep the
seat out of Democratic hands.

Stevens isn't talking about
resigning yet. His campaign sent a message to supporters Monday saying
"overzealous prosecutors" deprived Stevens of his rights and that 12
jurors who have never been to Alaska shouldn't decide the race.

Stevens
is particularly strong in rural Alaska. Matthew Nicolai, president of
the Calista Corp., one of 13 regional Native corporations, estimated
Stevens represents about $1 billion a year in federal projects to rural
Alaska. He said the 40-year senator has visited nearly all of the 56
villages in the Calista region at one time or another. Nicolai said he
thinks Stevens can still be re-elected.

Rep. Reggie Joule, who
represents Kotzebue in the state Legislature, heard news of the verdict
while preparing for a caribou hunt. Joule is a Democrat but has stumped
for Stevens during the campaign.

During the Alaska Federation of
Natives convention, some rural voters walked to the nearby Anchorage
City Hall to cast early ballots last week -- before the verdict, he
said. "Sen. Stevens has a lot of loyal backers, and a lot of people
have voted already."

Asked if he still plans to vote for Stevens, Joule hadn't decided.

"There's a piece of me that's really torn. So, I guess when I get inside the polling booth, I'll cast my vote," he said.

Alaska
Republican Congressman Don Young, who is under federal investigation
and facing his own tough re-election battle, said he thinks Stevens can
still win next week.

"He's the best thing for that, for the
Senate. Alaskans know this. This is a trumped up charge. ... I can
remember Richard Nixon, you know, his years of service, what he's done.
And everybody were ridiculing him and he ended up being the greatest
president in the history of our century," Young said.

Young, who
has not been charged, said the Stevens conviction doesn't make him more
concerned about what federal prosecutors might be planning for him.

"I have no problem with anything. I know where I'm going, where I've been and what I've done," he said.

POLLSTERS GET BUSY

Pollsters
said a Stevens acquittal could have given Young a needed boost, helping
to give voters doubt about the federal investigation of Young. Clem
Tillion, a Republican former president of the state Senate, seemed to
agree.

"I think it's going to be harder on Don Young than it is on Ted Stevens," Tillion said.

Alaska
pollsters will be scrambling in the coming days to test the effect of
Monday's conviction on both Young's U.S. House race and Stevens' Senate
bid.

Most recent polls have showed Begich and Stevens being
statistically tied. But a Craciun Research Group Inc. poll over the
weekend put Begich in the lead by 12 percentage points, after the
closing arguments but before the jury came in with a verdict.

Pollster
Anne Hays said it's been a close race, according to her numbers, but
she expects "the dam to open up," following the conviction. Ivan Moore,
another Anchorage pollster, said there's no way to know for sure what
the conviction will bring.

"This is one of those situations where
nothing like this ever happened before," Moore said. "But I think it's
pretty clear Ted's going to have a hard time winning next week."

Related: Alaska's Ted Stevens found guilty on all 7 counts

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