SEATTLE — Mark Begich settled in Wednesday as Alaska's newest U.S. senator-elect by doing what almost no other Democrat in Washington would ever do: declaring his support for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
But this is Alaska, where Democrats are of a different stripe, Begich reminded those who haven't seen many national-level Democrats from Alaska lately.
"I think anyone who knows me knows I'm a different Democrat. I'm from Alaska. I'm a believer, a strong supporter of the 2nd Amendment, a supporter of drilling in ANWR. Alaskans are very liberal [in their belief that] government should not interfere in their personal life," he said.
"I'm definitely different from a New York Democrat -- you can bank on that," he said in response to a question from the New York Times.
Begich, the 46-year-old mayor of Anchorage, edged out four-decade Republican incumbent Ted Stevens, 85, by more than 3,700 votes. Stevens issued a statement Wednesday conceding the race.
Begich's low-key campaign focused less on Stevens' criminal corruption trial, which was under way in Washington, D.C., during most of the campaign, than on his pledge to work on issues, including healthcare, renewable energy resources and climate change, that had received little attention from Alaska's Republican congressional delegation.
At a news conference in Anchorage, Begich said his victory demonstrated that Alaska was no longer a solidly Republican state, but "a state in transformation."
The Democratic candidate beat Stevens in 25 of the state's 40 legislative districts, including on three of the military bases that have always sided with Stevens.
"We're a much more mature state in a lot of ways. People are staying here longer, they're retiring here -- my son's a third-generation Alaskan," he said. "I think in a lot of ways, people are looking for people who will represent them in the long term."
The senator-elect is the son of Nick Begich, who was Alaska's congressman in 1972 when his plane disappeared over the Gulf of Alaska with Rep. Hale Boggs of Louisiana, then the House Majority Leader. The plane was never found.
Far from following Stevens' pedigree as a military pilot and Harvard-educated lawyer, Begich never attended college. He went to work in his family's apartment maintenance business to take care of his mother and put his siblings through college, in a biography his backers say reinforces his stature as a pragmatic Democrat who can survive in a state still dominated by the GOP.
Begich said he was committed to working with the Republican hierarchy in Alaska, including Gov. Sarah Palin, to advance the state's interests above party conflict.
"I've known her for many years. As mayor, we had a good working relationship on issues that were important to us," he said. "I don't care whether she's a Republican or not. . . . Right now, I think her issues are very similar to mine."
Begich said he was confident he would be able to act as a powerful new advocate on Capitol Hill for opening up Alaska's northernmost wildlife refuge to oil drilling. The idea has been blocked for years because of concerns it would threaten caribou, migrating birds, polar bears and other wildlife whose survival depends on the Arctic coastal plain and nearby waters.
"For the last 28 years, there hasn't been a Democrat sitting in the caucus talking about ANWR," he said. "My goal is to educate them about how big ANWR is to this state."
He added that drilling in the refuge could be sold to fellow Democrats if it were cast as part of a comprehensive energy strategy. "I believe it's about renewable energy, it's about new technologies . . . and if you ask the environmental community, that's something they've been waiting for since the early '70s," he said. "With Sen. Stevens, the environmental community didn't even get through the door."
The Alaska Wilderness League criticized similar statements Begich made Wednesday morning about Arctic drilling during an interview with National Public Radio.
"It's surprising that on his first day as senator-elect, Mr. Begich chose to directly contradict his own party platform and the position of President-elect [Barack] Obama," the league's executive director, Cindy Shogan, said in a statement. "It seems that in Alaska, the only party is the oil party."
And Begich's claim that a more mature electorate was looking for a solutions-oriented politician was greeted with skepticism by some Alaska political analysts, who said Stevens' criminal indictment and conviction probably cost him the race.
The fact that veteran Republican Rep. Don Young won reelection despite his own brush with the federal corruption investigation is testament to the GOP's influence over contemporary state politics, said Carl Shepro, political science professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
David Dittman, an Anchorage pollster who worked on the Stevens campaign early in the race, said the trial kept Stevens from personally campaigning until the last week of the race, when he began to seriously reduce Begich's previous gains.
As for Begich's support of drilling in ANWR, Dittman expressed conventional wisdom in Alaska: "No one could ever get elected from Alaska that didn't support it."