Ted Stevens, the longest-serving Republican in the U.S. Senate, is a giant in Alaska politics. In six terms, he has never won re-election with less than 66 percent of the vote. But as David taught Goliath, not even giants are invincible. This time, Stevens may end up on the wrong end of a landslide.
In a political climate where Senate Republicans are struggling to hold on to their filibuster power, Stevens has been locked in a tight race with Democratic Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich all year. That was before he was indicted on seven federal counts connected to “hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth” of gifts he received from an Alaskan oil-services corporation he frequently aided on federal issues. The first poll taken after the indictments showed Stevens winning just 37 percent of the vote and trailing Begich by 13 points, making this a prime pickup opportunity for the Democrats.
Unless Republicans retire Stevens themselves in the August 26 primary. Stevens’s main challenger is real estate developer and former state representative Dave Cuddy, who spent $1 million to lose the GOP primary to Stevens by over 30 points in 1996. This time, the conditions are different and Cuddy’s campaign has been kicked into overdrive by the indictments.
Cuddy says he is ready to take on both Stevens and Begich. “My message will actually be pretty much the same in both the primary and the general,” he tells me. “My primary and general election opponent come from very similar backgrounds — both of them are very liberal on fiscal and social issues.”
Like his equally troubled House colleague Don Young, Stevens is a king of pork-barrel politics. Robert Byrd’s longtime Republican sidekick on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Stevens threatened to resign from the Senate if Sen. Tom Coburn succeeded in blocking $453 million earmarked for Alaska’s notorious bridges to nowhere. His American Conservative Union ratings are middling, he backed the McCain-Kennedy immigration legislation, and he is a pro-choice supporter of Roe v. Wade, although he does vote for some abortion restrictions. Cuddy is running to Stevens’s right on spending, immigration, and abortion.
But to Cuddy, the primary is mostly about Alaska’s honor and the Republican brand. “We’re simply spending money that our kids are going to have to pay back,” he says. “We have to get over this idea that federal money is free.” Cuddy also argues that when it comes to earmarks, overspending, and the “culture of corruption,” Stevens is an example of the trends that cost the Republicans the 2006 elections.
He also differs slightly from the incumbent on another issue that cost the Republicans seats two years ago. Cuddy opposed the decision to invade Iraq and insists we cannot be “the world’s policeman.” “I hold a very high standard of when to put our sons and daughters in harm’s way,” Cuddy says. “To me, Iraq did not meet that standard. But once we are there, I do not believe we should set a timetable for withdrawal. Our troops must withdraw in victory and with the best possible outcome for Iraqi residents.”
Despite Stevens’s travails, Cuddy is not overconfident. With other candidates in the race, he doesn’t have a clean shot at the senator. Another challenger, Vic Vickers, is up on the air with ads, but he is new to the state while Cuddy’s website blares, “Dave knows Alaska.” Cuddy admits that the biggest problem is not the rest of the Republican primary field, but the incumbent’s lingering popularity.
“This will be a very close race. I’m hearing people say they will vote for [Stevens] even if he is in jail,” says Cuddy. “I have a good chance, but they may very well nominate him.” He sounds a similar note about the November contest with Begich. “Ted Stevens can’t beat him,” Cuddy argues. “I can’t say I would definitely beat him, but there is a chance I could. It would be a shame if we let it go.”
Not only does Cuddy believe a Stevens primary victory would put the Senate seat unnecessarily at risk, but he also thinks it would send a bad message to the country about the Republican Party. “Senator Stevens is the kind of guy who led to the kind of losses we had in 2006 and expect in 2008,” he says. “And yet has a very good chance of picking up the nomination.”
“We became the Democrats,” Cuddy continues. “An alcoholic has got to hit bottom, just become the worst drunk in the gutter, and we may have to reach that point before we change.” Either way, the primary results could be a sobering experience for Alaska Republicans.