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Uncle Ted is laid to rest, but his legacy isn't

Former senator Ted Stevens, one of the most powerful congressmen of his generation, was killed Aug. 9 in an airplane crash in a remote part of southwest Alaska.

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By Dana Milbank
Sunday, August 22, 2010

ANCHORAGE Ted Stevens is dead. Long live Ted Stevens.

As the legendary senator from Alaska was laid to rest last week, residents of this city hung homemade banners from fences and overpasses with messages such as "Thank you, Uncle Ted." The first sentence of the Anchorage Daily News's account of the funeral described Stevens, who died this month in a plane crash, as "a master in delivering vast sums to the state." And Vice President Biden eulogized that a "significant portion of the money that belongs in Delaware and New York and Georgia . . . resides right here."

Alaska, thanks largely to Stevens's reign as the king of pork, is the ultimate welfare state, receiving from the federal treasury $1.84 for every dollar its residents pay in taxes. The handouts continued in President Obama's economic stimulus legislation, which gave Alaska $3,145 per resident -- $1,364 more per resident than the second-place state, according to a ProPublica analysis, and nearly triple the national average.

On Tuesday, six days after the Stevens funeral, Alaska voters will hold what amounts to a referendum on the Stevens tradition when they cast their ballots in the state's Republican Senate primary. The question before the electorate: Will Alaska continue its long-term reliance on cash from Washington or will it join the Tea Party's call for smaller government? The smart money is on the former.

Upholding Uncle Ted's legacy is incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski, whose father held the same seat for years before becoming governor and appointing his daughter to succeed him in the Senate. She calls Stevens her "hero," and a phrase she spoke at the funeral -- "Ted was Alaska" -- became the banner headline in the next day's paper. The list of accomplishments her campaign presents to voters is a compendium of pork, including $5 million for "Yukon River Chinook salmon disaster funding."

Opposing the Stevens tradition is Joe Miller, who, with the support of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement, is attempting to defeat Murkowski. Miller argues that government is on "an unsustainable spending path" and objects when "the government takes from one person's hard work to give to another who has not worked for it."

Good points, both. The problem is that Miller's would-be constituents are the very ones who benefit from a too-large government transferring wealth to them from other Americans.

Among Miller's top priorities: attacking the "earmarks" that funneled $4.8 billion of pork to Alaskans since 1991, according to Citizens Against Government Waste, including funds for Stevens pet projects such as "hibernation genomics," "beluga whale research," "alternative salmon products" and "depressed Alaskan crab." Miller also favors lower corporate taxes -- this in a state addicted to oil company taxes for its revenue and for cash payments to residents.

Electing Miller would, in other words, be economic suicide in Alaska. This helps to explain why Miller trails so badly in his challenge to Murkowski, who held a 2-to-1 lead in last month's Alaska survey. Alaskans know where their bread is buttered.

This, more broadly, is why I have little faith that the Tea Party will succeed in its admirable pledge to fix the federal spending catastrophe. By and large, red states take far more than they give to the federal government, and once voters realize that "limited government" means less federal cash for them, they'll change their minds about shrinking government.

Might that sentiment be contributing to the surprising collection of losses in Republican primaries suffered by Palin-endorsed Tea Party candidates in recent weeks? Her picks have fallen in Washington, Wyoming, Kansas, Georgia, Colorado and Tennessee.

Each race is different, of course. But it seems fairly clear that, here in her home state, Palin has seen the limits of a limited-government message. Palin and Miller say Murkowski is insufficiently conservative, but her 70 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union is higher than that of Stevens, who lost his seat in 2008 after a corruption-related conviction but regained his stature when the conviction was thrown out because of prosecutorial misconduct.

The real question is whether Alaskans, as Palin and Miller believe, "are willing to tighten their belts a little bit" and receive less from the federal government. That would mean no more federal money for the wood technology center in Ketchikan, for the fight against the spruce bark beetle in Anchorage or for the lighthouse in Juneau. Gone would be funds for the botanical garden, the zoo, the aquarium, the adventure camp, the visitor center, the weather research facility and the countless harbor, airport and sewer projects.

Alaskans have buried Stevens, but they are not about to bury his legacy.

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