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Alaska: A Target-Rich Environment for Democrats?

New polling out of Alaska shows that the state's two iconic Republican incumbents are in real jeopardy at the ballot box next year.

The survey, conducted by Research 2000 for the liberal website DailyKos and in the field from Dec. 3-6, puts both Rep. Don Young and Sen. Ted Stevens behind their potential Democratic challengers.

In the Senate race, Stevens trails Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, 47 percent to 41 percent, while Young is behind state Rep. Ethan Berkowitz 49 percent to 42 percent. The numbers beyond the head-to-head matchups are no less discouraging for the Republicans. Just 29 percent of the sample viewed Stevens favorably as compared to 58 percent who saw him in an unfavorable light. Young didn't fare much better with a 40 fav/54 unfav score.

Berkowitz is already in the race and running against Young while Begich -- the son of late Alaska Rep. Nick Begich -- continues to mull a challenge to Stevens.

The problems with the Republican Party in Alaska are myriad and well documented, revolving around a lingering pay-to-play scandal engineered by an oil and gas company named Veco Corp. Both Young and Stevens have found themselves embroiled in the scandal and neither has handled the situation as well as they could have, given their decades of political experience. (Young picked a fight with the Anchorage Daily News recently, paying for ad space to attack its coverage of him.)

The implosion of the Alaska Republican party has been years in the making, however, as voters have clearly tired of politics as usual in the Last Frontier.

The first sign of the coming political earthquake came in 2006 when Gov. Frank Murkowski (R), another legend in Alaska politics, was drubbed in a Republican primary as he sought a second term. The incumbent received a stunningly low 19 percent of the vote. The primary and the subsequent general election were won by former Wasilla Mayor Sarah Palin who ran as a reform candidate, decrying the problems within her own party. Since being elected governor in 2006, Palin's reform message has made her perhaps the most popular governor in the country.

The Palin victory is rightly read in retrospect as a warning sign for both Young and Stevens who haven't faced serious competition for their seats in decades. Stevens was appointed to his seat in 1968 and hasn't dipped below 70 percent in a re-election race in more than three decades. Young has been in the House since 1973 and hadn't faced serious race in several cycles before dipping down to 57 percent in 2006 against a little known and poorly funded opponent.

Young and Stevens insist they will run for another term and they will win. And, they have several things going for them. First, Alaska is among the reddest states in the country; President Bush won it by 25 points in 2004. Second, the two most likely Democratic presidential nominees -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) -- would have little hope of running strong in Alaska. Third, incumbents are always tough to beat. People have been voting for Young and Stevens for most if not all of their adult lives and changing that behavior won't be easy.

Still, as we saw in 2006 with the GOP losses in Republican strongholds like Texas' 22nd district, Pennsylvania's 10th district and Florida's 16th district, scandal can trump demographics. If voters decide the incumbent is no longer the person they thought he was, it doesn't matter how strongly they supported President Bush in 2004. Democrats seem to sense opportunity here, and for good reason.

Assuming Begich decides to run, it's likely that both the House and Senate races will be places where the national parties focus their time and their money next November. And, if one or both of the incumbents are toppled, it's a sure sign that Alaska's politics are changing more rapidly than anyone could have imagined as recently as two years ago.

By Chris Cillizza  |  December 14, 2007; 6:07 PM ET
Categories:  House , Senate  
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