Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Goodbye Uncle Ted

Some birthday gifts you never forget, for all the wrong reasons. You’d love to take them back to exchange for something better; that’s when you discover there’s a policy of “no returns.”

Yesterday, on his 85th birthday, Sen. Theodore Fulton Stevens of Alaska — “Uncle Ted” to his loyal constituents — learned there'll be no returns to his seat in the Senate, where he was the longest-serving Republican member. Stevens, convicted on seven counts of felony corruption eight days before the Nov. 4th election, today conceded a loss to his challenger, Mark Begich, the mayor of Anchorage, Alaska.

“Given the number of ballots that remain to be counted, it is apparent the election has been decided and Mayor Begich has been elected,” Stevens said in a statement. For what it’s worth, the Associated Press called the race for Begich last night, once it was determined that Stevens trailed Begich by 3,724 votes, with only 2,500 votes left to be counted.

Begich’s win means that the Democrats have 56 firm votes in the Senate, plus the votes of two independents, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who caucus with the Dems. The tally of 58 means the Democrats are two shy of the 60-seat filibuster-proof majority. Races in Minnesota and Georgia are still to be decided more than two weeks after the presidential election.

Stevens’ defeat means the end of a political career measured in tree-ring time. Stevens, a senator for 40 years, advocated for Alaska before Alaska was even a state, appointed as U.S. Attorney for the then-territory of Alaska in March 1954. The airport in Anchorage is named for him. The man once named “Alaskan of the Century” was acclaimed by a fellow senator as “the Strom Thurmond of the Arctic Circle” (more a nod to his longevity, we hope, than to any flirtations with segregation).

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With Stevens gone, a generational transition continues for the GOP. With graybeards like Mississippi’s Trent Lott, Dennis DeConcini of New Mexico and John Warner of Virginia already retired, and with an Election Day loss of multiple seats in the Senate and the House of Representatives, a vacuum of leadership looms for the Grand Old Party. Ironically enough, the mantra of change adopted by Democratic President-elect Barack Obama throughout his campaign has by accident been taken up by the Republicans as well.

The political wild card in all of this is (or might have been) Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who needed a Stevens victory in order to advance her leverage on the political scene. The thinking goes that, had Stevens won, his fellow Republicans would have called on him to resign. Having a convicted felon in the ranks of the GOP just … wouldn’t look good. Having to expel him would look even worse; no sitting senator has been jettisoned from office since the Civil War.

Palin, who once worked for Stevens' 527 group, had her eye on Stevens’ Senate seat. In a Nov. 12 interview with CNN, she as much as owned up to it. "'I believe I have a contract with Alaskans to serve. I have two more years in my term at this point … as Governor," she said. "If something changed dramatically and if it were acknowledged up there that I could be better put to use for my state in the U.S. Senate, I would certainly consider it."

Had Stevens prevailed at the polls but been forced to resign, Palin would have had to call a special election 60 to 90 days from when Stevens vacated his seat. Palin would have had to make a temporary appointment to hold the seat for the rest of Stevens’ term, which was set to end in 2014.

Republicans in Alaska had already bandied about the name of one potential candidate. You got it: Sarah Palin.

Begich’s victory outright spares us that frightening prospect.

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At the age of 85, Uncle Ted Stevens has earned some quality time off in these, his emeritus years. Various land and construction deals, along with the ties and associations that a senator inevitably cultivates over 40 years, have left him a rich and comfortable man.

The rest of us (down here in the Lower 48) can relax a little, knowing that Alaska has shifted politically from its longtime hue of reflexive red to something closer to the color purple.

A Democrat represents the Last Frontier in the world’s greatest deliberative body. And for now, at least, Sarah Palin will have a better view of Russia than she’ll have of the chambers of the United States Senate.
Image credits: Stevens: Public domain.

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