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Begich Explores -- Another Senate Seat in Play?

Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich (D) announced this afternoon that he has formed an exploratory committee to consider a run against Sen. Ted Stevens (R) this fall, a decision that virtually ensures Alaska will play host to a competitive statewide race this fall.

"[Politicians] have a lot of opinions about what we think, but that is part of the frustration with Alaskans," said Begich in a conversation with The Fix shortly after announcing his intentions. "I want to make sure everyone gets heard."

By setting up an exploratory committee, Begich can begin raising money and conducting some campaign-related activities without becoming a full-blown candidate just yet. He also can create the impression that he is on a listening tour of the state (a la Hillary Clinton during the runup to her 2000 Senate bid) and, if and when he announces, credit it to an outpouring of support from Alaskans.

Begich said he would move quickly to decide whether or not to run; "I will definitely decide far in advance of June 1," he said, referring to the state's federal filing deadline.

The strong sentiment among state and national Democrats is that Begich will ultimately make the race. And, if he does, this race should be a barn burner.

Why?

Let's start with Begich. He carries a well-regarded and well-known last name in the Last Frontier (his father served in Congress before being killed in a plane crash that also took the life of then Rep. Hale Boggs). He also has a political base in Anchorage -- the state's largest city -- where he has served as mayor since 2003.

Because of those two factors, it's not likely Begich would face any serious primary competition, meaning that the national party can get involved very early on to help the candidate get off the ground organizationally and financially. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has made no secret of the fact that it pines for a Begich candidacy and believes he is the only Democrat who can beat Stevens.

"Mark Begich has an outstanding record as mayor, and should he take the next step to become a candidate, we think he'll run a great race and ultimately be a great senator," said DSCC communications director Matt Miller following the Begich announcement.

The other reason this race is likely to be competitive is because of the ongoing problems with the Republican party in the state -- problems that have crept ever closer to Stevens's doorstep.

Stevens told the Post's Paul Kane in June that federal officials had asked him to preserve records relating to an ongoing federal investigation into a pay-to-play scandal that has ensnared Stevens's son as well as a number of Republican party officials. Less than two months later, federal investigators raided Stevens's Alaska home in connection with the inquiry.

The investigation, which has empaneled grand juries in Alaska and Washington, is continuing with no one entirely certain whether Ted Stevens will be further imperiled by the federal investigation or exonerated.

And, even within the Republican party, it appears as though the pay-to-play lobbying scandal has created an environment for change. In 2006, Gov. Frank Murkowski -- widely associated with the old Republican guard in the state -- was crushed in a primary by little known Wasilla Mayor Sarah Palin who ran as a reformer and called for a house cleaning in the state GOP. (The Fix sat down with Palin earlier this week.)

It would be a mistake to directly equate Murkowski's defeat with Stevens's situation, however. Murkowski was widely disliked, even by many within his own party. Stevens, on the other hand, is known as "Uncle Ted" by most Alaskans -- an appellation that speaks to his saint-like status in the state. He has held a Senate seat in Alaska since 1968 and is -- to borrow a phrase from "The Shawshank Redemption" -- "a man who knows how to get things." Stevens has been bringing back money to Alaska for the majority of his four decades in Washington and is likely to paint ousting him a major blow to the state's influence in the nation's capital.

In a statement released by his campaign after Begich's announcement, Stevens did just that. "Alaska is a small state which is a long way from Washington," he said. "We need a Senator who knows Alaska and Washington and who has the experience and clout to be able to protect our state from day one."

That sentiment was echoed by National Republican Senatorial Committee communications director Rebecca Fisher. "Senator Stevens is a rock star in Alaska and we are confident his constituents will return him to Washington," she said.

Recent polling in the race suggests that the scandals have taken a toll on Stevens, however. A Research 2000 poll conducted for the liberal blog Daily Kos put Begich at 47 percent to 41 percent for Stevens.

Privately, Republicans acknowledge that a Begich candidacy, coupled with the ongoing federal probe, virtually ensures that Stevens will face his toughest re-election race to date. But, they argue, the demographics of the state heavily favor Republicans and should be enough to push Stevens over the finish line -- assuming no other news breaks in relation to the federal investigation.

The closest federal race in recent memory in Alaska came in 2004 when former governor Tony Knowles (D) challenged appointed Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) who had been chosen for the post by her father upon his ascension to the governorship. The race was a major focus of both national parties and Murkowski's struggled to escape her father's rising unpopularity and charges of nepotism. In the end, however, the state's Republican tilt took over as Murkowski beat Knowles, 49 percent to 46 percent.

Begich is clearly aware of the challenge in running as a Democrat in a state Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) received just 36 percent of the vote in 2004. He spoke of the "common thread" that bonds all people together -- regardless of party. "Everyone has it, we just have to find it," said Begich.

How does Begich's announcement affect Alaska's ranking on the Senate Line? Make sure to check this space on Friday morning to find out.

By Chris Cillizza  |  February 27, 2008; 5:20 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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Next: Bobby Bright and The Question of Obama's Coattails

Comments

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Posted by: xenprgcd rfzawkuo | April 16, 2008 11:32 AM | Report abuse

It's Ted "Series of Tubes" Stevens, not a bunch of pipes. And there are some amazing remixes of his testimony out there. I especially like the one where an IT specialists attempts to track the "internet" Sen. Stevens sent his staff that didn't get there for a week.

Posted by: patrickkreilly | February 28, 2008 4:24 PM | Report abuse

If Stevens can be unseated this would be the year.

1. Western states like their money, but they also like the idea of themselves as independents. If Stevens has to base his campaign on "I can bring us more money," he won't be the first and he wouldn't be the first it didn't work for. Voters don't like the stench of desperation.

2. He may be a senior Republican, but it is highly likely this fall will be a Democratic one. Is it better to be a Democrat from a red state that the majority needs or a senator the party in charge loves to hate now that Lott and Santorum are gone? The voters understand this.

3. This fall will have youth versus age undercurrents. Ted "The Internet is a bunch of Pipes" Stevens is not going to be on the youth side of the equation. He could be running against a WWI vet and still be the old guy.

4. No matter what the outcome of the federal probe, he is already guilty in voter's minds. The question is whether or not they care. If the voters are disgusted with the Republican party, then that is good for the challenger. If voters compartmentalize it (I already knew he was a rat, so what?), then it isn't a big negative for Stevens.

It won't be easy, but it would be harder any other year.

Posted by: caribis | February 28, 2008 1:49 PM | Report abuse

Ethnic coattails... bsimon, what do those look like?

Posted by: drindl | February 28, 2008 10:07 AM | Report abuse

If Obama were to have ethnic coattails in AK, they'd have to be from his mother's side.

Posted by: bsimon | February 28, 2008 10:05 AM | Report abuse

Anybody have any comments on BHO's coattails in AK? Ethnic or otherwise?

Posted by: judgeccrater | February 28, 2008 8:56 AM | Report abuse

anthonyjbrady posted this nonsense about the likelihood of Virginia staying Republican and Rhode Island turning Republican a few weeks ago. He said at the time, "I know something you don't". I challenged him then and challenge him again, what do you know that makes you think Gilmore has a snowball's chance in Hades of beating Warner and that any Republican can beat Jack Reed?

Posted by: jimd52 | February 28, 2008 8:55 AM | Report abuse

I think anthonyjbrady meant Virginia, not Rhode Island. Not sure if Reed is even up this year, but that's not a race anyone outside of RI will ponder.

And to build on what jonathanmstevens said, Obama wins Virginia this fall. Mark Warner wins easily, maybe even sweeping all 11 CD's. And Democrats will pick up at least one House seat (the 11th), and two more (the 2nd and 10th) look winnable. Win all three, and Virginia's House delegation swings from 7R/4D to 7D/4R.

Also, a Stevens/Begich offers the same sort of contrast as the Burns/Tester race in Montana a few years back. Conrad Burns was also a formidable dispenser of pork, also obviously corrupt as hell, and was also a figure of epic proportions in a big, lightly populated western state. The difference is that Montana doesn't have an Anchorage, Alaska has already begun flicking away its kleptocrats, and Tester started way further behind where Begich is today in terms of name recognition, insitutional support, etc. This will be a close race, but the DSCC is jumping for joy here for a reason.

My Senate line: 1. VA, 2. NM, 3. NH, 4. AK, 5. CO, 6. MN, 7. LA, 8. OR, 9. KY, 10. TX. I'd put the over/under at +5 for the Dems, with a minimum of 3 and a maximum of 8.

Posted by: novamatt | February 28, 2008 7:41 AM | Report abuse

It is possible that Begich could unseat Stevens, though it will be tough. Ted has been around so long and brought so much money into the state that he has near God like status. Not to mention that Alaska has been dominated by the Republicans for longer than most of us can remember. But Begich has been a very successful and popular mayor of Anchorage, where roughly half the people in the state live.

Another interesting race (which you have mentioned previously) is the challenge to Don Young on the house side by Democrat Ethan Berkowitz. I think a lot of people here in Alaska, including many Republicans, are more than fed up with Young's antics.

If forced to lay odds, I would say that Begich has a somewhat less than fifty-fifty shot at taking out Ted Stevens, while Berkowiz has a better than even chance against Don Young. But Alaska is a very quirky state, so anything could happen.

Posted by: fred_flintstone | February 28, 2008 2:32 AM | Report abuse

Alaska is the one state where people have learned that they need each other to survive. Especially away from Anchorage. They accept each other's quirkiness. In the year of Yes We Can I can see the chance to take a seat away from the Republicans.

Posted by: AverageJane | February 28, 2008 1:07 AM | Report abuse

markwaor,
You are correct. Mark Warner is as close to a lock as a candidate can be in a contested open seat race. His popularity approaches 80% in VA, Gilmore is viewed as old news even by many Republicans, and this state has been trending "purple" at a rate that suggests the remaining Republican "bias" in an otherwise neutral year would be no more than 5% (and maybe much less). If Obama can close out his nomination next week, Warner and Obama at the top of the ticket with Warner nearly coasting and free to campaign for others will be a great boon to down ticket Dems. If we get that ticket there will be competitive Congressional races that come from way off the radar screen.

Posted by: jonathanmstevens | February 28, 2008 12:36 AM | Report abuse

Chris, I'm quite disappointed. I thought you would no better than to reference results of a poll sponsored by a partisan organization (DailyKos). Such polls are rife with problems beginning with non-disclosure of question order and other methodology to ridiculous wordings (though the questions they listed, of course, seemed reasonable). Private poll consulting is fed to the media when it helps support the views of a group and ignored when it doesn't. Journalists often eat up numbers because they imply credibility and validity, even if they come from the most suspect sources. Just know that when you take numbers from advocates of a particular candidate who PAID for the research- the research was likely aimed at supporting their choice candidate.

Posted by: viola061985 | February 27, 2008 9:54 PM | Report abuse

Go get 'em Begich. I am cautiously optimistic we can pull off a Tester-style upset in Alaska.

On a different note, watch this video of Barack crushing John McCain. I love it. Chris, you should watch it too. This is how you take on a Republican.

http://youtube.com/watch?v=Q2pXElHV6FA

Posted by: GoHuskies2004 | February 27, 2008 9:52 PM | Report abuse

nice joke anthonyjbrady, #1 Rhode Island. Jack Reed cannot be beaten in a regular year. Plus, Va is the obvious #1 and Alaska and Miss should drop to #9 and #10

Posted by: cbl-pdx | February 27, 2008 8:09 PM | Report abuse

I'd rather hear more about Siegelman in Alabama.

Posted by: wpost4112 | February 27, 2008 7:42 PM | Report abuse

anthonyjbrady:

What about Virginia?

Mark Warner looks pretty good, and not only because my name is ... well, Mark Warner.

From Montana though ...

Posted by: markwaor | February 27, 2008 7:18 PM | Report abuse

If Begich is a smart man , he might want to go ahead and get on the Barack Obama train right now. Obama has already demonstrated his considerable strength in Alaska by dominating Hillary Clinton here in the primary. Obama has troops on the ground who could go to work for Begich and increase our working majority for change at the same time .

Posted by: brokenglassdemocrat | February 27, 2008 7:04 PM | Report abuse

There's plenty of room for a New Western Democrat. Montana (that bastion of radical liberalism) elected two Democratic Senators. Colorado will be getting a new one soon. Both States went 'red' in the last presidential election. People are so sick of the Republican party (the list of reasons is long and the items obvious) that a good Democratic candidate has a good shot.

Posted by: thebobbob | February 27, 2008 6:51 PM | Report abuse

My Line:
10. Maine
9. Oregon
8. Missisippi
7. Minnesota
6. Colorado
5. Louisianna
4. Alaska
3. New Hampshire
2. New Mexico
1. Rhode Island

Posted by: anthonyjbrady | February 27, 2008 6:09 PM | Report abuse

Nice to see another red state pork-barrel GOP hack getting a serious challenge.

Posted by: Spectator2 | February 27, 2008 6:00 PM | Report abuse

Stevens is the most corrupt pork-barrel worthless sack of evil we have in Congress.

Good riddance, comrade!

Nice to have Alaska back in good standing.

Posted by: thecrisis | February 27, 2008 5:34 PM | Report abuse

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