A defiant Sen. Ted Stevens is returning to Alaska on Wednesday to resume his re-election campaign, despite being convicted of felonies that carry the potential of years in prison.
Stevens, 84, faces a challenge of historic proportions with just one week before the election. He'd be the first convicted U.S. senator ever elected, on appeal or not.
Alaska pollsters and political consultants were skeptical of Stevens' chances Monday but not prepared to count out the longest serving Republican in Senate history. Several pointed out that, contrary to most predictions, Stevens surged in the polls after his indictment in late July, coming from far behind to what's essentially a tie with Democratic opponent Mark Begich in most recent polls.
"That had to be people rallying to Ted against these Outside influences attacking their senator. It's possible, extremely unlikely, that with the conviction we'll get another backlash against this Outside influence," said Anchorage pollster Marc Hellenthal.
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The mood at Stevens' Anchorage campaign headquarters was one of stunned horror immediately after the conviction came down mid-day Monday. People milled inside while two young volunteers stood in the cold guarding the door. One of them looked close to tears.
Hours later, the news had settled in. The guards were gone, the campaign ordered Moose's Tooth pizza for its workers and Stevens' backers started talking about what's next.
"I think it will be a battle but we're going to throw every ounce of effort into doing so," said political consultant Art Hackney, who is working on the Stevens campaign.
Hackney said it's going to be a "nonstop campaigning, very aggressive," once Stevens gets back to Alaska. He said the campaign has to ask people to withhold their judgment.
"And basically what I think most people understand, it's really three words — prosecutorial misconduct and appeal," he said. "And other than that it's campaigning on the record of what he's done and what he can do."
Larry Sabato, who publishes the nationally watched Crystal Ball forecasts of congressional races, said he can't imagine Alaskans would re-elect a U.S. senator just convicted of seven felonies.
"It would make Alaska a national laughingstock," said Sabato, who directs the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
The National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee appears to have given up on Stevens.
"Ted Stevens served his constituents for over 40 years and I am disappointed to see his career end in disgrace," said NRSC Chairman John Ensign, a senator from Nevada.
Carl Shepro, a political science professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said that kind of talk might be premature. Shepro said he believes Stevens still has a real chance to win re-election next week despite the conviction.
"Right now I'm in Fairbanks. It's pretty amazing the advertisements for him and the testimonials and stuff," Shepro said. "It's certainly difficult to think they are just going to turn around because of the conviction, and with appeals this could drag out for years."
Stevens' Democratic opponent, Anchorage Mayor Begich, was playing it safe on Monday. Begich read a 14-second statement that said it's been a tough year but time to move on. He then refused to answer any questions from reporters.
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who recruited Begich to run, wasn't feeling so shy. He called on Stevens to "now respect the outcome of the judicial process and the dignity of the United States Senate." The Alaska Democratic party said Stevens should resign.
U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Stevens must face the consequences of the verdict and will be held accountable so public trust can be restored.
But Alaska's other U.S. senator, Republican Lisa Murkowski, said the prosecution committed several gaffes during the trial and she'll stand with Stevens as he pursues his appeal.
There's nothing in the U.S. Constitution or Senate rules to keep a convicted felon from being a senator.
Stevens' colleagues could expel him with a two-thirds vote if he's re-elected, or even before his current term ends in January.
If Stevens resigned or was expelled, the seat would stay empty until a special election within 90 days.
Todd Larkin of North Pole, who has been active in the state Republican Party, said Stevens could win, and then resign, allowing the Republicans to put up a candidate in the special election. That's a potential scenario state party officials are talking about to keep the seat out of Democratic hands.
Stevens isn't talking about resigning yet. His campaign sent a message to supporters Monday saying "overzealous prosecutors" deprived Stevens of his rights and that 12 jurors who have never been to Alaska shouldn't decide the race.
Stevens is particularly strong in rural Alaska. Matthew Nicolai, president of the Calista Corp., one of 13 regional Native corporations, estimated Stevens represents about $1 billion a year in federal projects to rural Alaska. He said the 40-year senator has visited nearly all of the 56 villages in the Calista region at one time or another. Nicolai said he thinks Stevens can still be re-elected.
Rep. Reggie Joule, who represents Kotzebue in the state Legislature, heard news of the verdict while preparing for a caribou hunt. Joule is a Democrat but has stumped for Stevens during the campaign.
During the Alaska Federation of Natives convention, some rural voters walked to the nearby Anchorage City Hall to cast early ballots last week — before the verdict, he said. "Senator Stevens has a lot of loyal backers, and a lot of people have voted already."
Asked if he still plans to vote for Stevens, Joule hadn't decided.
"There's a piece of me that's really torn. So, I guess when I get inside the polling booth, I'll cast my vote," he said.
Alaska Republican Congressman Don Young, who is under federal investigation and facing his own tough re-election battle, said he thinks Stevens can still win next week.
"He's the best thing for that, for the Senate. Alaskans know this. This is a trumped up charge. ... I can remember Richard Nixon, you know, his years of service, what he's done. And everybody were ridiculing him and he ended up being the greatest president in the history of our century," Young said.
Young, who has not been charged, said the Stevens conviction doesn't make him more concerned about what federal prosecutors might be planning for him.
"I have no problem with anything. I know where I'm going, where I've been and what I've done," he said.
POLLSTERS GET BUSY
Pollsters said a Stevens acquittal could have given Young a needed boost, helping to give voters doubt about the federal investigation of Young. Clem Tillion, a Republican former president of the state Senate, seemed to agree.
"I think it's going to be harder on Don Young than it is on Ted Stevens," Tillion said.
Alaska pollsters will be scrambling in the coming days to test the effect of Monday's conviction on both Young's U.S. House race and Stevens' Senate bid.
Most recent polls have showed Begich and Stevens being statistically tied. But a Craciun Research Group Inc. poll over the weekend put Begich in the lead by 12 percentage points, after the closing arguments but before the jury came in with a verdict.
Pollster Anne Hays said it's been a close race, according to her numbers, but she expects "the dam to open up," following the conviction. Ivan Moore, another Anchorage pollster, said there's no way to know for sure what the conviction will bring.
"This is one of those situations where nothing like this ever happened before," Moore said. "But I think it's pretty clear Ted's going to have a hard time winning next week."