Tarred by Scandal, Republicans May Be Losing Alaska

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 16, 2008

ANCHORAGE -- On the summer morning he would deliver himself to federal marshals to begin a 3 1/2 -year sentence for accepting an oil company's bribes, former state lawmaker Vic Kohring (R) parked along the side of Alaska's busiest highway. While his mother waited in the car, Kohring posted a hand-lettered sign reading "Thanks, Alaska" and spent three hours waving and smiling at drivers heading to work.

The unlikely display of gratitude came after the FBI captured the portly Republican on surveillance video gushing, "That's very kind of you, I appreciate that," as an oil executive handed over hundred-dollar bills. And he may not be the last Alaska Republican making a less than graceful exit from the stage this year.

Polls show that Sen. Ted Stevens, recently indicted for allegedly failing to report a quarter of a million dollars in gifts from the same oil executive, is widely expected to prevail in the Aug. 26 Republican primary. But that victory would allow the patriarch widely known as "Uncle Ted" only the dubious honor of being able to devote his full attention to a felony trial in advance of a November general election that looks less promising for the incumbent.

Don Young, the state's sole member of the House of Representatives, enters his 19th reelection race having spent $1.3 million, or three-quarters of his campaign fund, on lawyers representing his interests in an array of federal investigations that the flinty incumbent dismisses with a wave of his hand.

"I've never had an easier race, contrary to what people say," Young declared in an interview. "I'm from Fort Yukon! I'm a riverboat captain!"

Even Gov. Sarah Palin, the former beauty contestant elected two years ago on a reform slate, spent July navigating her first scandal. A special prosecutor will determine whether Palin pushed to punish her sister's ex-husband, a state trooper whose established sins include moose poaching and shooting his 11-year-old stepson with a Taser.

"We come here for the edge, and we love the edge. But this is ridiculous," said Francine Lastufka Taylor, a former musician and arts administrator who arrived from "outside" in 1961. "The place was so young, and there was a lot of nut cases, but they weren't in charge."

"Crazy politics up here," declared a smiling Howard Enbysk, 74, retired from the Air Force. "It's different."

It might be even more different after Nov. 4. The relentless tattoo of scandal -- coupled with the drag of presumptive GOP presidential nominee John McCain's tepid local support and a Democratic field offering a new generation of political leadership -- threatens a Republican stranglehold on Alaska politics that dates to the oil boom of the 1970s.

"I expect us to have, for the first time in 28 years, at least one Democrat in the congressional delegation," said Gerald McBeath, a political scientist at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. "I expect Stevens's chances of survival are better than those of Young."

Stevens, 84, faces only modest primary opposition, but if he is able to run in November he will almost certainly face popular Anchorage mayor Mark Begich. At 46, the Democrat embodies generational change: His father, Nick, was running for reelection against the then-upstart Young in 1972 when he vanished into the Gulf of Alaska aboard a small plane that also carried Rep. Hale Boggs of Louisiana.

But while Begich's TV spots include the scandal headlines that have become obligatory for challengers here, the candidate also emphasizes his credentials as an upbeat moderate who reaches across partisan lines in a state where most voters at least call themselves independents.

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