In the early ’90s, the Boston Herald reluctantly endorsed a scandal-tainted Republican legislator for re-election: “Were it not essential to preserve a veto-sustaining Senate, this would be the year for voters to jettison this long-time incumbent. The GOP itself would benefit from new Senate leadership.”
Switch the word “veto” to “filibuster” and those sentences describe how many conservatives feel about Ted Stevens this year. The seven-term Alaskan is the longest-serving Republican in the Senate. He has also been an inconsistent ally to the right for years and has recently become the poster child for the overspending and ethical concerns that have helped undercut the GOP’s national image.
In short, Ted Stevens was the kind of Republican many conservatives thought the party would be better off without.
But Stevens is also one of several embattled Republicans standing in the way of a 60-seat, filibuster-proof Democratic majority that could pass enough liberal legislation to make the Great Society look like Morning in America. In fact, despite federal corruption charges, Stevens was in a stronger position than some other troubled incumbents. If acquitted, most observers believed, the pork-loving architect of Alaska’s Bridge to Nowhere stood a decent chance of being re-elected. Stevens obviously thought so himself, which is why he pushed for a speedy trial that would be over before Election Day.
No such luck. Yesterday Stevens was convicted of all seven federal felony counts, found guilty of accepting and failing to disclose $250,000 in home renovations and other gifts from VECO, a politically connected Alaska corporation. A tight Senate race against Democratic Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich may have slipped out of the Republicans’ hands.
Stevens isn’t giving up yet. On the evening of his conviction, Stevens issued a defiant statement:
I am obviously disappointed in the verdict but not surprised given the repeated instances of prosecutorial misconduct in this case. The prosecutors had to report themselves to the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility during the trial for ethical violations. Exculpatory evidence was hidden from my lawyers. A witness was kept from us and then sent back to Alaska. The Government lawyers allowed evidence to be introduced that they knew was false. I will fight this unjust verdict with every ounce of energy I have.
I am innocent. This verdict is the result of the unconscionable manner in which the Justice Department lawyers conducted this trial. I ask that Alaskans and my Senate colleagues stand with me as I pursue my rights. I remain a candidate for the United States Senate.
Yet the discussion has now turned to whether Stevens can even vote for himself in next Tuesday’s election. Two VECO executives had already been convicted of bribing Alaska lawmakers, one of them a star witness against Stevens. Even with his Frontier State reputation as “Uncle Ted” and the added benefit of McCain-Palin’s coattails, an eighth term might prove a bridge too far.
Alaska Republicans had a chance to avert catastrophe by following a recent precedent. In 2006, an unpopular and corrupt GOP incumbent seemed likely to lose the governorship. With the Republicans reeling even in Alaska, the Democrats put up a popular former governor as their candidate.
Then along came Sarah Palin. Alaska Republican primary voters relegated the sitting governor to third place and instead nominated the upstart hockey mom. This year, several Republicans lined up to take on Stevens. Palin’s own lieutenant governor, Sean Parnell, challenged Congressman Don Young, who is also under investigation and trailing his Democratic opponent in the polls.
Except this time, the incumbents prevailed — a feat they will find difficult to replicate in the general election. Dave Cuddy, Stevens’s main challenger, told me before the primary that he encountered people who said they’d vote for Uncle Ted even if he were in jail. Stevens piled up 63 percent of the vote, winning easily. But there’s at least some anecdotal evidence that the conviction has hardened voter attitudes against him.
The decision to rally around Stevens will have national implications, putting the Democrats that much closer to the nine Senate seats they will need to pick up for a 60-seat majority. Even if they fall short of that magic number, knocking the Republicans back down to pre-1994 numbers — 44 senators — will make it difficult to sustain filibusters. Without the filibuster, Republicans on Capitol Hill will effectively lose their ability to block or reshape legislation.
Now as the 84-year-old Stevens fights to hang on to his job representing Alaska in Congress — as he has done for 40 of 49 years since statehood — all he can do is warn his red-state electorate what kind of blank check they could be handing the liberals in Washington. It would be an easier sell if Stevens contrasted more sharply with the Democrats himself. Massachusetts voters didn’t listen to the Boston Herald‘s endorsement of that beleaguered Republican back in 1992. Will Alaskans heed Stevens next week?