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Alaska's Stevens loses his bid for reelection

Democratic challenger Mark Begich takes an insurmountable lead over the longtime Republican senator.

November 19, 2008|Kim Murphy | Murphy is a Times staff writer.

SEATTLE — Ted Stevens, the powerful and irascible politician who became an institution in the U.S. Senate while helping to transform Alaska from a rough territory into a modern state, lost his bid for reelection Tuesday, bringing the Democrats within two seats of a filibuster-proof majority.

An excruciatingly lengthy count of early and absentee ballots finally produced a definitive lead for Democratic challenger Mark Begich: 3,724 votes, with about 2,500 left to count. Begich's victory is expected to be officially certified next week, although Stevens could request a recount.

"I am humbled and honored to serve Alaska in the United States Senate," Begich, who is mayor of Anchorage, said in a statement after the largest remaining block of 24,000 ballots was counted late Tuesday. "It's been an incredible journey getting to this point, and I appreciate the support and commitment of the thousands of Alaskans who have brought us to this day."

The results give the Democratic Party seven new Senate seats, with two races yet to be settled. Factoring in the two independents who caucus with Democrats, the party controls 58 seats, with 60 needed to cut off debate.

A recount was to get underway today in Minnesota, where Republican Sen. Norm Coleman led Democrat Al Franken by just 215 votes out of 2.9 million cast. And a Republican incumbent in Georgia, Saxby Chambliss, faces a Dec. 2 runoff against Democrat Jim Martin.

Stevens, the Senate's longest-serving Republican, did not comment on the latest vote tallies. He had held an early lead after the Nov. 4 election, despite his felony corruption conviction. A week earlier, a jury in Washington, D.C., convicted him of failing to report more than $250,000 in home improvements and other gifts from an oil-services industry firm.

As Stevens campaigned, he maintained that he was not a felon and would not be one unless his conviction was upheld on appeal.

The fact that the senator -- a World War II pilot who turned 85 on Tuesday -- came so close to holding his seat was testimony to his revered status across much of Alaska, which he had represented in the Senate since 1968. Voters who supported him cited his record of delivering millions of dollars in federal aid that helped build highways, sewer services, hospitals, airports and schools across the far-flung state.

"He's been a very able senator who in many respects brought home the right kind of meat and potatoes for the unstructured areas of Alaska, which like Appalachian counties just can't make do on their own," said Mike Bradner, former Democratic speaker of the Alaska state House of Representatives and publisher of Alaska Legislative Digest. "The village sewer and water systems, those are the right kind of earmarks he brought home, and he was a master at it.

"Regardless of what has happened, I think he was a very, very dedicated public servant, and I think he's going to be missed," Bradner said.

Stevens' apparent defeat marked the end of an era in Alaska, which for decades was represented by a triumvirate of powerful politicians who magnified the leverage of a state with barely 600,000 residents through seniority and influential committee assignments.

Stevens, a veteran of Alaska's fight for statehood, was appointed to the Senate in 1968 by former Republican Gov. Wally Hickel. Stevens served as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee from 1997 to 2005, except for 18 months when Democrats held the majority. The post enabled him to consolidate a considerable power base in Washington.

He used his growing influence not only to steer federal budget money toward Alaska, but also to help win passage of landmark legislation on fishing rights, Native Alaskan claims and construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

Alaska's other long-standing Republican senator, Frank Murkowski, served a term as governor but lost in a primary to the current governor, Sarah Palin. (He appointed his daughter, Lisa Murkowski, to his Senate seat.)

The state's veteran congressman, Don Young, won reelection to a 19th term but faces a continuing investigation in the federal ethics probe that targeted Stevens. Young has not been charged with wrongdoing.

The House race had been up in the air too, although the Associated Press declared Young the victor last week. Democratic challenger Ethan Berkowitz refused to concede until the last large batch of ballots was counted Tuesday.

Stevens' loss ends what had been uncomfortable jockeying both in Washington and Anchorage over what to do if he won. Republican senators had been scheduled to vote on whether Stevens should be expelled from the GOP conference. Alaskans were talking of a possible special election to fill the vacancy if Stevens resigned or was expelled.

Stevens still is contesting a move by the Alaska Bar Assn. for an immediate, interim suspension of his license to practice law as a result of his felony conviction. The Alaska Supreme Court has ordered him to respond by Nov. 24.

And his son, Ben Stevens, former president of the Alaska state Senate, faces potential questions in the ongoing federal corruption investigation but has not been charged.

--

kim.murphy@latimes.com

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