By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich (D) defeated Sen. Ted Stevens, ending the tenure of the longest-serving Republican in Senate history, after the counting of more ballots yesterday gave him a larger lead than the number of votes still untallied, Alaska elections officials said.
Begich's win gives Democrats control of 58 seats in the Senate, including two independents who caucus with them. That is two shy of the number needed to prevent Republicans from filibustering, with two races still undecided. Democrats have not controlled 60 seats since 1978.
Begich leads Stevens by more than 3,700 votes, according to the Alaska secretary of state. Gail Fenumiai, the head of the state's election division, said about 2,500 absentee votes from overseas and Alaska's most remote regions remain to be counted.
The Democrat's lead thus far -- 47.8 percent to 46.6 percent -- puts him beyond the margin of victory that would allow Stevens to call for a state-funded recount of the ballots.
"I am humbled and honored to serve Alaska in the United States Senate," Begich said in a statement declaring victory. "It's been an incredible journey getting to this point."
Alaska voters "wanted to see change," he told reporters in Anchorage. "Alaska has been in the midst of a generational shift -- you could see it."
The race was closely watched, in part because Alaska had not sent a Democrat to Congress in nearly three decades, while Stevens was vying to become the first convicted felon to win election to the Senate. He was convicted last month on seven felony counts of failing to disclose more than $250,000 in gifts.
Begich is the son of Nick Begich, the House member from Alaska who disappeared in 1972 on a flight with House Majority Leader Hale Boggs (D-La.). Both were presumed dead. No Democrat has represented Alaska in its two Senate seats and one House seat since Sen. Mike Gravel was defeated by Republican Frank Murkowski in 1980.
Begich ran as a conservative Democrat, supporting gun owners' rights and additional domestic drilling for oil production, including in wildlife areas where most Democrats have opposed drilling.
However, the race always focused on Stevens, with the campaign virtually stopping during his four-week trial. The candidates debated once, just days before the election. Begich sought to pay respect to Stevens's long service to the state, contrasting that with the recent allegations against him.
"He's done a lot for our state, and I've shared Alaska's respect for him. The past year has been a difficult one for Alaska. With the verdict, we can put this behind us," Begich said in an advertisement that aired the final weekend before Election Day.
Stevens, who is in Washington for this week's lame-duck session, said yesterday that either his campaign or the Alaska Republican Party would definitely ask for a recount if the final margin fell within the needed 0.5 percent of the votes cast.
Still to be settled are races are in Minnesota and Georgia. Minnesota officials formally began a recount yesterday in the race between Sen. Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken; the Republican finished 206 votes ahead of the onetime comedian out of 2.9 million ballots cast. In Georgia, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) faces a Dec. 2 runoff against former state representative Jim Martin. Chambliss held a 110,000-vote margin on election night, but his share of the vote did not reach 50 percent, as required by state law.
Stevens, who turned 85 yesterday and was appointed to the Senate in 1968, told reporters yesterday that he was exhausted and had not slept well since his indictment in late July. He added that he had led "three lives": as a senator, a criminal defendant and a candidate for office.
"I wouldn't wish what I've been through on anyone, [not] my worst enemy," said Stevens, who says he is considering appealing his convictions.
Stevens, an iconic figure who helped lead Alaska to statehood in the 1950s, served as chairman of the appropriations, commerce and ethics committees in his 40-year tenure in the Senate. He was known for steering hundreds of billions of dollars to his home state for projects.
But the earmarked projects also drew the scrutiny of federal investigators.
Bill Allen Jr., the former chief executive of an oil services company, Veco, pleaded guilty in May 2007 to bribing a host of Alaskan officials. He testified at Stevens's trial that his company oversaw a massive reconstruction of the senator's home outside Anchorage, raising the A-frame house on stilts and building an entire new floor and wrap-around deck beneath it.
Stevens was charged with not reporting the home rebuilding and other assorted gifts from Allen and other powerful friends on his Senate financial disclosure forms.
A federal jury in the District convicted Stevens on Oct. 27, eight days before most voters would go to the polls in Alaska. He faces a potential jail term, but sentencing has not been set.
Stevens said yesterday that he could not talk about his legal battle, neither with reporters nor even in a closed-door meeting of Senate Republicans.
Outside the GOP meeting, he said he planned to tell his colleagues, "It's a nice day. It's a really nice day."