Alaska Senator Ted Stevens is in big trouble.
And when Stevens is in trouble, so are Senate Republicans.
In a high-profile raid on the senator's home, Federal Bureau of Investigation and Internal Revenue Service agents raided the home of 83-year-old senatorial schemer Monday, as part of an investigation into his relationship with an oil field services contractor jailed in a public corruption investigation.
Bill Allen, the contractor who is suspected of providing expensive favors such as a massive home renovation to Stevens, has already pleaded guilty to bribing Alaska state legislators.
Allen's VECO Corp., an oil field services and engineering company, has reaped tens of millions of dollars in federal contracts during the years when Stevens chaired the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and a fellow Alaska Republican, Congressman Don Young, chaired the Resources Committee and then the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in the House.
Young is reportedly the subject of a federal investigation relating to Allen's campaign fund-raising on behalf of Alaska Republicans.
Young is the third most senior Republican in the House, which Stevens is the senior Republican in the Senate.
Both Young and Stevens face reelection in 2008.
If Young is beat, it will just be another case of a Republican seat falling to the House Democrats, who are unlikely to lose the relatively comfortable majority they secured in 2006.
If Stevens is beat, it is a different story.
Democrats won a narrow majority in the Senate in 2006. With the support of independents Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, and the lamentable-but-still-slightly-in-the-tent-for-caucus-purposes Joe Lieberman, of Connecticut, Majority Leader Harry Reid heads a caucus with 51 members to 49 for the Republicans. The Republicans desperately want to retake the Senate. But the task, which already looked tough, is lookin even tougher with each new revelation regarding Stevens.
The problem for Senate Republicans in 2008 is that, because they won so many seats in the GOP-friendly post 9-11 election of 2002, they now must defend far more vulnerable seats than the Democrats in 2008.
The last thing the Senate GOP leadership needed was trouble in Alaska, a Republican-leaning state that has elected Democrats to statewide office in recent years and that maintains an edgy maverick streak. But with the Stevens investigation expanding, they've got that trouble.
At a time when many of Alaska's prominent Republicans have been linked to scandals, there are a number of "clean" and popular Democrats waiting to move up. Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, the son of popular former Democratic Congressman Nick Begich, heads the list. But it also includes Democratic legislators Eric Croft, an able reformer who garnered a good deal of attention when he sought the governorship a few years back, and Ethan Berkowitz, who was the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in 2006. State Senators Hollis French and Johnny Ellis are also on the list of Democratic prospects.
And then there is former Governor Tony Knowles, a Democrat who served in Alaska's top job from 1995 to 2003. Knowles narrowly lost bids for the Senate in 2004 and for another term as governor in 2006, but he retains a following statewide and he has great name recognition and an image as something rare in Alaska: an ethical statewide official.
Stevens said before the FBI raids began that he planned to seek an 7th full term. Recent developments may cause a change in plan.
But whether Stevens seeks reelection in 2008, or whether he steps down and creates an open-field race, Knowles would be an extremely viable contender -- with strong statewide name recognition and a solid reputation.
For Senate Republicans, the idea of a battered octogenarian senator who is plagued by scandal struggling to cover up his shame in a race with Knowles or a younger Democrat such as Begich, is a nightmare scenario.
For Senate Democrats, 2008 is suddenly shaping up as what could be one of their best election years in decades.
John Nichols' new book is The Genius of Impeachment: The Founders' Cure for Royalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use of the 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democratic leaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by the founders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"
Copyright © 2007 The Nation