In a huge development that is bound to have substantial repercussions on the Senate battle (and not necessarily all good for Democrats), Alaska Senator Ted Stevens has just been indicted on corruption charges. This race was ranked a toss-up in my latest rankings.
We have known for months that Stevens was under investigation for money he might have received from VECO, an oil company, in exchange for legislative favors. His house in Girdwood was raided last summer; shortly after, a VECO admitted in court, that employees of his company had worked on renovations of Stevens’s house and had bribed his son Ben. And that was followed by reports that the FBI had recorded phone conversations between said executive and Stevens. Today was thus the logical continuation of a process that started a long time ago, and the 7 indictment counts Stevens received today were related to his ties with VECO.
Stevens joined the Senate in 1968 and has been one of the chamber’s most powerful members ever since. That such an entrenched incumbent - and a Republican representing a conservative state - was struggling in his re-election race was of course due to the ethico-legal trouble he was in. In fact, the entire state GOP has been discredited by corruption investigations, including Rep. Don Young whose electoral prospects looked even bleaker than Stevens until today.
One thing that seems certain this afternoon is that Ted Stevens will not be part of the 111th Senate. He will either withdraw, be defeated in the primary or in the general election. Does that mean Democrats can count on a sure pick-up? Not necessarily, and here is where things get really complicated. The race might soon a likely Democratic pick-up, but there still are a lot of question marks that have to be answered.
Just as in the House race, Republicans would have a much greater chance at keeping the seat if a candidate who is not involved in a scandal came to replace their incumbent on the ballot for they could then rely on the state’s conservative leanings. (This is exactly what happened in 2006.) But here is the catch: Republicans might not be able to replace Stevens with a top-tier contender. The state’s filing deadline has already passed and there are 6 candidates running in the GOP primary: Ted Stevens and five lesser-known competitors. One of them has to win the August primary. 3 scenarios then:
1) Stevens wins the primary and withdraws: Given that he has 5 competitors who will divide the anti-Stevens vote, this is a possibility. If he then withdraws his candidacy, it would allow the state party to pick a high-profile replacement (Kos has the relevant Alaska statute). In 2006, that would have allowed the GOP to start off favored. This year, it would make the election a toss-up: Mark Begich is strong enough that he would remain in the running against most Republicans, the entire state GOP is in a dismal state right now, and the GOP nominee will have a very late start.
2) Stevens wins the primary and stays on the ballot: There is always the possibility that the famously hot-tempered Senator might refuse to withdraw his candidacy if he wins the primary and insists on staying on the ballot. That would probably be the GOP’s nightmare scenario: If Begich already looks to be slightly ahead of Stevens in the latest polls, it is impossible to imagine the incumbent winning against the Democrat in November.
3) Stevens loses the primary: This would be the best scenario for Democrats. If one of the third-tier primary challengers wins, the state party would be stuck with that candidate (unless they can convince him to withdraw). Given that none of them have any political profile, Begich would start off as the clear favorite. The trouble for the GOP and the NRSC is that they can hardly rush to Stevens’s rescue at this point and help him beat his challengers in the primary.
Because Stevens’s primary challengers are largely unknown, their chances of knocking down the incumbent are unclar. At least two challengers seem prepared to spend significant sums of their own money - though multiplicity of these candidates actually improves Stevens’ chances. One challenger, Vic Vickers, a businessman who just moved to Alaska in January (his connection to Alaska is that he hitchhiked through the state as a college student), had announced earlier this week that he was planning on spending $750,000 on TV ads. The first spot he released showed him standing in front of Stevens’s house and proclaiming: “I am Vic Vickers, and I’m running against Ted Stevens to stop corruption.” Another potentially threatening primary candidate is David Cuddy, a real estate developer who can put a lot of his own money in the race.
Other races in the state: This development could have a great impact on the two other races of the state: The House contest and the presidential election. The GOP brand was already hurting, but that the most important Republican in the state’s history is now indicted, joining countless other state Republican lawmakers who are facing charges, will further tarnish the party’s image. That will boost Barack Obama’s efforts to pull a gigantic upset and pick-up this state. Obama has been spending money on ads here whereas McCain has been staying out.
The same is true in the House race. Don Young’s association with Ted Stevens and the fact that he, too, could be indicted at any moment will help Lieutenant Governor Sean Parnell beat him in the Republican primary. That would be a relief for the GOP, as Young has very little chance of surviving the general election against Democratic candidate Ethan Berkowitz. But this also improves the chances of Berkowitz to win the general election against Parnell, as the Democrat will be helped by the GOP’s dismal state. In very red OH-18 in 2006, Rep. Ney was dropped off the ballot in the fall but Democrat Zach Space won a resounding victory against his replacement.
In fact, a poll of AK-AL was released today by Hays Research. It naturally does not incorporate the impact of today’s news, but gives us a useful pointer.
- Parnell moves narrowly ahead of Young in the GOP primary, 45% to 42%.
- In the general election, Hays Research did not even test a Berkowitz-Young contest. Against Parnell, the Democrat is actually narrowly ahead, 33% to 30% - but the huge number of undecided voters is a huge question mark.