For GOP, Stevens Indictment Is Latest in a String of Setbacks

By Chris Cillizza and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Ted Stevens's indictment yesterday could not have occurred at a more politically inopportune time for the senator from Alaska or for his fellow Republicans.

In less than a month, on Aug. 26, he has a primary contest against five opponents, including a wealthy businessman who is attacking the incumbent's ethics in television ads. Should he survive, the six-term senator probably will face his stiffest general-election challenge yet, from Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, who was leading in polls before the indictment.

Although a spokesman said yesterday that the senator's reelection campaign "is continuing to move full steam ahead," some Republican strategists in Washington expressed concern that his legal troubles -- and resulting political vulnerability -- could move the Democrats closer to achieving a 60-seat majority in the Senate.

"We've had nothing but challenges all the way through, so what else is new?" said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (Utah), who was tapped earlier this year as a lead fundraiser for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Republicans entered this election at a numerical disadvantage -- 23 seats to defend, compared with 12 for Democrats -- and have caught almost no breaks. Five Republican senators opted to retire and one resigned office last December, including incumbents in Virginia and New Mexico, where Democrats are strongly favored in the fall. Senate Republicans have fallen far behind their Democratic counterparts in fundraising.

That playing field emboldened Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, to openly muse to reporters last week about the prospect of winning nine seats in November, which would give Democrats a 60-seat majority in January. That number that would allow them to break Republican filibusters and exert true majority control of the legislative body.

Some Republican strategists noted yesterday that Stevens's legal problems could also jeopardize Alaska at the presidential level. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has deployed staffers in the state, a sign that he intends to mount a serious campaign there. Political observers there cannot remember the last time a Democratic presidential candidate made a serious play for Alaska, which has not voted for a Democrat since President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.

"Republicans are in desperate need of new, fresh ideas and faces," said one Republican strategist who closely follows Senate races. "Stevens should resign immediately. The only thing he does by staying in is continue to damage his party."

Senate Republicans had planned to spend the week hammering Democrats for not pushing energy legislation allowing for more domestic oil drilling. Yesterday, as Republicans assembled at their political headquarters for a talk about the campaign season ahead, they learned that their most senior colleague had been indicted on corruption charges related to energy executives.

One senator at the meeting said the lawmakers learned of the indictment from aides sending BlackBerry messages, at which point the matter was briefly mentioned at the meeting and they were advised to not speak to reporters about Stevens.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who faces a potentially difficult challenge in November, did not comment about Stevens all day. Others noted that Stevens, whose fiery temper is well known throughout the Capitol, has reached an iconic status in the chamber where he has served longer than all but six senators.

"He's been a fighter for his state, for his country," said Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.), who serves on the Appropriations Committee with Stevens.

Stevens finds himself part of a group of senators, all 75 or older, who are battling health or political circumstances that could dramatically reshape the institution in the next few months and years. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), 76, and John W. Warner (R-Va.), 81, are retiring after more than three decades in the Senate. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), 90, and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), 76, are battling health problems.

Younger senators have noted the potential for a dramatically recast set of characters playing the role of Senate elder statesmen in the next few years. "For all of us it would be something to consider, because you're losing a lot of institutional memory," said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who won his second term in 2006.

Stevens campaign spokesman Aaron Saunders said the senator's office received numerous calls and e-mail messages "urging the senator to press on."

"The message from them is clear: Alaska needs Ted Stevens in the U.S. Senate," Saunders said.

One scenario being floated by GOP operatives is for Stevens to compete in and win the primary, then step aside and allow the Republican State Central Committee to pick a candidate of its choosing. Stevens has shown no willingness to reconsider his reelection plans, however.

Begich, the Democratic challenger, said in a statement: "The indictment of Senator Ted Stevens is a sad day for Alaska and for the senator after his 40 years of service to our state. . . . I have great faith in our state and our people, and we will continue to move forward."

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