Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Is this Chuck Schumer's 60th seat?

    Sen Ted Stevens (R-AK) found guilty of corruption

A Washington DC jury yesterday found Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens guilty on seven charges of corruption, relating to unbilled home improvements gifted by a local CEO. Although he has sworn to appeal, he faces a five-year maximum jail sentence, though a date for sentencing has not yet been set.

Stevens has been the US Senator from Alaska for 40 years, and was voted 'Alaskan of the Century' by the state's inhabitants. He is President Pro Tempore Emeritus, having been Senate Pro Tempore (4th in the Presidential Line of Succession after POTUS, VPOTUS, and the Speaker of the House) when the Republicans held the US Senate. That said, he was already facing his toughest Senate re-election bid to date, facing Democratic Mayor of Anchorage Mark Begich. Begich is a good candidate by all accounts, and in the irresistable tide of Obamamania in such a difficult year for the GOP, Stevens looked vulnerable for the first time in years. Alaska has been a fairly solidly Republican state for some years - GW Bush enjoyed a 20% lead over John Kerry here, but doesn't hold the same antipathy for Democrats that you might find in Idaho or Wyoming.

Begich was leading by between 3% and 5% until late July. A poll had just put him on a 9% lead, when news of Stevens' corruption charges broke. Very few politicians would have survived that week - I can think of none who would have not only contested the charges, but insisted on running for re-election only 100 days later. Stevens knows his reputation, and knew that unless jailed, he was better placed than anyone to beat Begich. Some talked of the little-known Alaska Governor Sarah Palin taking on the race to beat Begich, but her 80% approval ratings were not considered worth wasting by a loss, and there were concerns that her own scandal ('Troopergate') would render her a vulnerable electoral candidate in November.

Stevens gutsily insisted on a trial in Washington DC, to be concluded only two weeks prior to election day. All eggs in one basket, he figured that being acquitted would give him a bounce that could see him still retain his seat. That said, he knew that his poll numbers (not to mention fundraising) would take a hit in the short term. They did. At one point, he was 20%+ down against Begich, and Alaska fell into the 'Likely Democrat' column for a couple of weeks. No prizes for guessing what changed all that.

The luckiest man this entire election cycle has been Pat Dougherty. He is the editor of the Anchorage Daily News, which has fast become a globally-recognised newspaper. As well as the excitement of Stevens' court case in the midst of a tight re-election race, he also got to act as the authoritative voice on the Gubernatorial prowess of Sarah Palin when she was surprisingly chosen by John McCain as his Vice-Presidential nominee. Having now decided to back Barack Obama, the newspaper was itself the story once again this week.

Palin's unveiling, and the recognised boost of a favourite son/daughter on a party's polling, suddenly turned the tables on Begich. He, above all others, has my sympathy if he loses in November. From one of the toughest incumbants to beat, he fought to a slim and growing lead. He got a glimpse of a complete and crushing victory for but two weeks, before the impulsive and unpredictable choice of Sarah Palin blew the Democrats out of the water in America's biggest, northernmost, easternmost, and westernmost state.

I wrote in an article the weekend before last that Stevens' trial was the key issue, and that if he lost, he would almost certainly lose the seat. For the sake of Mark Begich's nerves, I hope that is the case, but it would be dangerous to write off the old goat yet. He has sworn to appeal, he will continue to run, and if Sarah Palin encourages massive GOP turnout in state, the crowds eager to recognise their favourite daughter for the profile she has given Alaska in this campaign might just keep Stevens in his seat.

Of course, even if he won, there are two dangers. His appeal could fail, and whilst a conviction does not render him ineligible as a Senator (though it would a member of the House of Commons), serving jail time would effectively prevent him from carrying out his duties (inc voting) and he would likely step down, prompting a special election that I'd expect Begich to win *unless Palin stood for the GOP*.

The second danger on the horizon is that he wins, but is expelled from the Senate. This requires a two thirds majority, but this would be reduced from the normal 67 Senators (needed to vote guilty at an Impeachment Trial) to 66 in Stevens' case, as I believe it is established that a person cannot vote on a challenge to themselves. If Stevens wins Alaska, I think the limit of Democrats will be 57 (plus Lieberman and Sanders). Thus 7 Republican Senators would have to vote to expel him, and I cannot see that happening. In fact, I cannot see many Democrats supporting such a measure. The Senate is much more collegial than the House, and the members are usually friends personally, even where politics diverge. The only cross partisan friendship I can think of in the House is Barney Frank and Ron Paul, and that must surely come out of a shared recognition of belonging to their parties' fringeworthy wings. In the Senate, Ted Kennedy is beloved of several Southern Republicans, and Stevens is close to Daniel Inoue, the Democratic Senator from Hawaii. John Kerry and Joe Biden are/were both close to John McCain, and Dick Lugar and Barack Obama were known to be cordial. Only a true partisan would introduce an expulsion bill, unless the target was truly beyond the pail - a Joe McCarthy perhaps. Stevens is too long-standing to be expelled, and I would say he is probably safe however big the Democratic majority is - indeed, the bigger it is, the greater the danger of them looking like abusing it for partisan advantage. He just needs to win his election, and win his appeal. Nothing to it.

Alaska is now my favourite Senate race to watch, even more so than Oregon or North Carolina. I think it could be quite close, and wonder if the InTrade market will be one to watch until the very end of the night.


No comments: