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What's the Matter With Alaska?

Remember Alaska?

The ruby red state President Bush carried by 25 points in 2004 and 31 points four years earlier? The state who last elected a Democrat to the Senate in 1974. And to the House in 1972? (For trivia's sake, Mike Gravel -- yes, that Mike Gravel, was the last Alaska Democrat in the Senate; the late Rep. Nick Begich was the last Democrat in the House.)

Well, the times are changing in the Last Frontier thanks to a public corruption scandal that has badly damaged the Republican brand and potentially implicated both Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska).

At the core of the scandal is Bill Allen, the former head of Veco Corp. Allen -- along with another Veco executive -- pleaded guilty in May to bribing state legislators and other elected officials in exchange for favorable legislation. In the plea agreement, the men acknowledged giving $243,500 to a state senator's consulting company in hopes of winning support for a piece of legislation. Although the state Senator is not named in the plea agreement, the amount of money is identical to that which Veco paid former state Sen. Ben Stevens' (R-Alaska) consulting company.

As first reported by washingtonpost.com's Paul Kane, Ted Stevens -- Ben's father -- had also been asked by the FBI to retain any records in connection with Veco. At issue for Ted Stevens is more than $100,000 of work done on his home, a project that was allegedly overseen by Allen and other Veco executives. The FBI's raid of Stevens' home yesterday seems to suggest the Justice Department continues to be very interested in the Senator's connections to Veco.

Young is also struggling to hold up against the weight of the Veco scandal. As reported in the Wall Street Journal last week, the 18-term lawmaker is also now a subject of the federal investigation into the pay-to-play scandal. In the last three months alone, Young spent more than $250,000 on legal fees.

Both Stevens and Young are up for re-election in 2008. Neither has given the slightest indication that they are planning to leave office as a result of the ongoing investigation but the controversy has emboldened longtime opponents of the two incumbents.

Witness the Club For Growth, a fiscally conservative third party group who has long loathed the earmarking that Stevens and Young so proudly tout for their state. Earlier this month, the Club released a poll, conducted by Red Sea LLC, that seemed to show that even Alaska voters were fed up with this practice.

Asked whether they approved or disapproved of the $223 million in federal spending for a bridge from Ketchikan to Gravina Island (aka the "Bridge to Nowhere") 25 percent said they approved of the money being allocated for the bridge-building while 66 percent disapproved. Seventy-one percent said they would prefer a candidate who "wants to cut overall spending even if that includes cutting some money that would come to Alaska," while just 17 percent favored a candidate "willing to increase overall spending on federal program as long as more federal spending and projects come to Alaska."

Most worrisome for Stevens' electoral prospects was that 47 percent said the following statement was true: "Ted Stevens has done some good things for Alaska but after forty years in Washington it's time for a change"; just 45 percent said that statement was false. Did we mention these are Republican primary voters?

Alaska over the last few cycles has shown a willingness to shake up the political establishment. After two decades in the Senate, Frank Murkowksi (R-Alaska) won the governorship in a landslide in 2002. He went on to appoint his daughter, Lisa, to the vacant Senate seat -- a move that brought charges of nepotism down on both father and daughter. After Lisa Murkowski narrowly beat former Gov. Tony Knowles (D) to win a full Senate term in 2004, Frank Murkowksi was faced with an open revolt from the Republican party in his 2006 re-election bid. He took just 19 percent of the vote in the primary, a stunning collapse and a sign that Alaska voters were ready for a chance. Wasilla Mayor Sarah Palin, who ran an outsider and a reformer, won the primary and general election easily and is now enjoying sky-high approval ratings in office.

Could Stevens and/or Young fall victim to that same sort of voter fatigue? Possibly -- especially if the ongoing scandal worsens or fellow Republicans revolt. A number of prominent Republicans are mulling primary challenges to Stevens or Young but it remains to be seen whether any serious candidate steps forward in either race.

Democrats have been quietly recruiting in the state on the off chance that either Stevens or Young retires or the Veco scandal badly damages their political prospects. The crown jewel recruit in the state is Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, son of the late Congressman. Begich's last name gives him considerable entree among Alaska voters and his base in Anchorage doesn't hurt either. Begich is said to be considering runs for either the House or Senate but from what we hear is leaning toward the Senate under the belief that holding a House seat every two years is a near impossibility. On the House side, it appears as though former state House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz and 2006 lieutenant governor nominee is the likeliest challenger to Young.

Before Democrats get to far ahead of themsleves, it's important to remember that despite the upheaval in the state Republican party, Alaska remains a strongly Republican state. It's a certainty that whoever Republicans nominate for president will carry the state and likely carry it handily. That should give Stevens and Young or whoever their replacements are a nice boost.

Still, Alaska's political environment in incredibly fluid at the moment. Things are changing rapidly. Keep watch.

By Chris Cillizza  |  July 31, 2007; 1:38 PM ET
Categories:  House  
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