ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Sen. Ted Stevens, the longest serving Republican in Senate history, narrowly lost his re-election bid Tuesday, marking the downfall of a Washington political power and Alaska icon who couldn’t survive a conviction on federal corruption charges. His defeat by Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich moves Senate Democrats within two seats of a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority.
Stevens’ ouster on his 85th birthday marks an abrupt realignment in Alaska politics and will alter the power structure in the Senate, where he has served since the days of the Johnson administration while holding seats on some of the most influential committees in Congress.
The crotchety octogenarian built like a birch sapling likes to encourage comparisons with the Incredible Hulk, but he occupies an outsized place in Alaska history. His involvement in politics dates to the days before Alaska statehood, and he is esteemed for his ability to secure billions of dollars in federal aid for transportation and military projects. The Anchorage airport bears his name; in Alaska, it’s simply “Uncle Ted.”
Tuesday’s tally of just over 24,000 absentee and other ballots gave Begich 150,728, or 47.76 percent, to 147,004, or 46.58 percent, for Stevens. There are about 2,500 overseas ballots yet to be counted.
A recount is possible. If the vote differential between the two candidates is more than 0.5 percent, either side can seek a recount if it posts a bond of about $15,000 to pay for a new tally.
Begich said the defining issue in the race was the desire for a new direction in Washington, not Stevens’ legal problems.
Alaska voters “wanted to see change,” he told reporters in Anchorage. “Alaska has been in the midst of a generational shift — you could see it.”
Stevens’ campaign didn’t immediately respond to phone calls seeking comment.
Stevens’ loss was another slap for Republicans in a year that has seen the party lose control of the White House, as well as seats in the House and Senate. It also moves Democrats one step closer to the 60 votes needed to overcome filibusters in the Senate and gives President-elect Barack Obama a stronger hand when he assumes office on Jan. 20.
Democrats now hold 58 seats, when two independents who align with Democrats are included, with undecided races in Minnesota and Georgia where two Republicans are trying to hang onto their seats.
Democrats have now picked up seven Senate seats in the Nov. 4 election.
“With seven seats and counting now added to the Democratic ranks in the Senate, we have an even stronger majority that will bring real change to America,” Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in a statement.
The climactic count came after a series of tumultuous days for a senator who has been straddling challenges to his power both at home and in his trial in Washington. Notwithstanding all that turmoil, Stevens revealed Tuesday that he will not ask President George W. Bush to give him a pardon for his seven felony convictions.
Stevens’ future was murky at a time when newly elected members of both the House and Senate were on Capitol Hill for heady receptions, picture-taking sessions and orientation this week. Stevens, speaking earlier Tuesday in Washington, said he had no idea what his life would be like in January, when the 111th Congress convenes.
“I wouldn’t wish what I’m going through on anyone, my worst enemy,” he lamented to reporters. “I haven’t had a night’s sleep for almost four months.”
Last month just days before the election, Stevens was convicted by a federal jury in Washington of lying on Senate disclosure forms to conceal more than $250,000 in gifts and home renovations from an oil field services company.
His defeat could also allow Republican senators to sidestep the task of determining whether to kick out the longest serving member of their party in the Senate.
When counting resumed Tuesday, 1,022 votes divided the candidates out of about 300,000 ballots cast. Most of the those votes came from areas that had favored Begich — the Anchorage vicinity and the southeastern panhandle around Juneau.
It is a testament to Stevens’ popularity — he was once named “Alaskan of the Century” — that he won nearly half the votes, even after his conviction. He routinely brought home the highest number of government dollars per capita in the nation — more than $9 billion in 2006 alone, according to one estimate.
With Stevens gone “it’s a big gap in dollars — billions of dollars — that none of the other members of the delegation, Begich, whoever, could fill,” said Gerald McBeath, chair of the political science department at University of Alaska Fairbanks. “There is no immediate replacement for him.”
Following the trial Stevens said he wanted another term “because I love this land and its people” and vowed to press on with an appeal. Professing his innocence, he blamed his legal problems on his former friend Bill Allen, the founder and former chairman of VECO Corp., the government’s star witness.
In a state where oil and politics have always mixed, the conviction came as part of a long-running investigation into government corruption centered around VECO.
Begich will be the first Democrat to represent Alaska in the Senate in nearly 30 years. He is the son of Nick Begich, Alaska’s third congressman, who died in a plane crash 1972 while running for re-election.
Stevens’ lawyer demanded a speedy trial, hoping for exoneration in time to fight the first serious threat to his seat in decades. But the trial in Washington not only left Stevens a felon, it deprived him of time to campaign in his home state.
Stevens refused pleas from his own party leaders to step down after the verdict, including Sen. John McCain, the GOP presidential nominee who said the Alaska senator had “broken his trust with the people.”
Stevens’ fall came shortly after another Alaskan, Gov. Sarah Palin, emerged as a national figure on the Republican presidential ticket. She had called for Stevens to step aside at one point, but appeared to back away from that the day after the election when returns showed Stevens with an edge.
“The people of Alaska just spoke,” she said.