For most politicians, a guilty verdict on seven felony counts — eight days before an election — would guarantee the end of a political career.
But Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens is not like most politicians. After his conviction Monday on charges that he lied about free home renovations and other gifts from a wealthy oil contractor, the 84-year-old Stevens refused to drop out of his re-election race against Democrat Mark Begich.
And while he faces long odds in a contest where polls showed a close race even before the verdict, few in Alaska were willing to count Stevens out. Democrats hope to seize the once reliably Republican seat as part of their bid for a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority in the Senate.
“It’s very possible that (Stevens) is going to win the election,” said Carl Shepro, a professor of political science at the University of Alaska in Anchorage.
While Begich has run a strong campaign, “Stevens has been blanketing the airwaves too,” Shepro said. “Even though he’s not here, he’s had a lot of air time.”
Many Alaskans believe that Stevens — a 40-year senator and a legend in Alaska politics — is being unjustly attacked and that the charges against him don’t amount to real corruption, Shepro said.
“A lot of people feel the senator is completely innocent and that there are people who have been doing favors for him without him being aware of it,” Shepro said. “The senator is very popular in Alaska.”
But Anchorage-based pollster Ivan Moore said Stevens is almost certain to lose.
“I think it’s pretty much inconceivable that Ted will be able to pull it out from this point,” said Moore, who has been polling on the Alaska Senate race for more than a year. Moore’s latest poll, completed last week as trial testimony was wrapping up, showed the Senate race essentially tied.
Many voters said they were waiting for a verdict to make up their minds, and most of them are likely to be convinced that as a convicted felon Stevens must be ousted from the Senate, Moore said. A Washington jury found Stevens guilty of seven felony corruption charges of accepting home renovations and other gifts from an oil executive and then lying about it.
The verdict “is going to hurt him to the point where he can’t win,” Moore said of Stevens.
Moore predicted a relatively close race, even with the conviction.
Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, virtually conceded the race in the wake of the guilty verdict.
“Ted Stevens served his constituents for over 40 years, and I am disappointed to see his career end in disgrace,” Ensign said. “Sen. Stevens had his day in court, and the jury found he violated the public’s trust — as a result he is properly being held accountable. This is a reminder that no one is above the law.”
The veteran senator was in no mood for accommodation Monday night.
In a statement issued by his Senate office, Stevens said he was disappointed but not surprised at the verdict, “given the repeated instances of prosecutorial misconduct in this case.”
Stevens proclaimed his innocence and said, “I will fight this unjust verdict with every ounce of energy I have.”
He asked Alaskans and his Senate colleagues to stand with him as he pursues his legal rights and his re-election campaign.
One of the most prominent of those colleagues, Republican presidential candidate John McCain, called Tuesday for Stevens to step down because he “has broken his trust with the people.” The verdict, McCain said in a statement issued by his campaign, was “a sign of the corruption and insider-dealing that has become so pervasive in our nation’s capital.”
Begich, the mayor of Alaska’s largest city, Anchorage, did not address the verdict directly.
“This has been a very difficult year for Alaskans, and a long year,” Begich said in a statement. “I believe Alaskans will move forward because we have many critical issues and challenges ahead of us to deal with.”
Patti Higgins, chairwoman of the Alaska Democratic Party, said Stevens should resign from the Senate. “Alaskans deserve better from their public officials. It’s time for us to elect an ethical and honest senator who will move this state forward,” she said.
McHugh Pierre, a spokesman for the Alaska Republican Party, said the party continued to support Stevens, calling him a conservative who best represents the interests and beliefs of Alaskans.
Rep. Don Young, a veteran Alaska Republican who faces a tough re-election fight amid questions about his own ethics, said he still thinks Stevens can win.
“He’s the best thing for the Senate. Alaskans know this: This is a trumped-up charge,” Young said.