U.S. Rep. Don Young was fighting for his political life early Wednesday, running neck-and-neck with Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell in a race too close to call.
With 83 percent of precincts reporting in the Republican U.S. House primary at 1:30 a.m., Parnell was leading but less than one half of one percentage point separated the two candidates. The difference was just 263 votes, with Parnell up 41,613 to 41,350.
"We're on the edge of our seat like everybody else," said Mike Anderson, Young's chief of staff who was working on the campaign and analyzing the returns Tuesday night.
Most of the precincts that hadn't reported election results as of midnight were from rural Alaska villages. Those are "typical Young strongholds," Anderson said. But Parnell wasn't convinced Young was going to clean up in the Bush, especially given many rural residents might choose to vote in Tuesday's Democratic primary instead of Republican contest.
There are also the 16,000 absentee ballots the division of elections mailed out. It has received back 7,600 of them and Gail Fenumiai, director of the state division of elections, said she didn't know how many of those have been counted. As long as the absentee ballots were postmarked Tuesday, the division will continue to count them for the next 10 days. Questioned ballots will be counted on Sept. 5.
Young, 75, is running for re-election under the shadow of a Justice Department investigation and has been described by opponents as a "wounded bear." The candidate was in Fort Yukon on Tuesday night, Anderson said, watching the results on his neighbor's cable television and getting updates from Anderson by telephone.
Young declined a request for a telephone interview.
The winner of the Young-Parnell race will face Democrat Ethan Berkowitz in the November general election. Berkowitz, a former Democratic leader in the state Legislature, had a large lead over Diane Benson in the Democratic U.S. House primary.
U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens avoided Young's drama Tuesday night, easily crushing six Republican primary challengers despite his indictment on federal felony charges of failing to disclose more than $250,000 in gifts and home repairs from the oil field services company Veco Corp.
Stevens, tentatively set to stand trial Sept. 24 in Washington, D.C., will face Democrat Mark Begich in the November election. Begich, the mayor of Anchorage, easily swatted aside Ray Metcalfe and Frank Vondersaar in the Democratic U.S. Senate primary. Begich was bringing in over 84 percent of the vote.
The real race Tuesday was Young vs. Parnell.
Parnell gave a speech at his campaign headquarters late Tuesday night in which he thanked his supporters "for staying up with us." He also expressed gratitude to his family and Gov. Sarah Palin, who endorsed his challenge of Young. "I'm just so thankful for her support and her family's support as well," he said.
"We're confident about the numbers...but obviously this race is just too close to call," Parnell said.
Parnell was helped by the fact that Young, Alaska's lone member of the U.S. House since 1973, spent more than a million dollars of his campaign contributions on legal fees. Young refuses to say exactly what his legal fees have been paying for, but the congressman is connected to several federal investigations. They include the wide-ranging federal probe into corruption in Alaska politics, which has focused on the fundraising practices of Veco Corp.
Young denies wrongdoing and hasn't been charged.
Voter Lee Pitts said the incumbent Stevens and Young have "gotten too arrogant for my liking." He said Young's decision to "raid" a Parnell press conference last week was an example.
But voters like Audrey Myers, who voted at Abbott Loop Elementary in Anchorage, weren't ready to dump Stevens and Young for other Republicans.
"I'm still leaning on incumbents. I think the incumbents have brought in a lot of money and I'm not sure about the new people," Myers said.
Parnell, 45, had the support of the Washington, D.C., anti-spending group Club for Growth, which financed most of his campaign. Young has been criticized nationally as a "porker" for his pursuit of money for Alaska projects, a term he embraced.
Parnell ran to the right of Young, saying Congress spends too much. Parnell also pledged to restore Alaska's national reputation and work in tandem with Palin if elected.
Young taunted Parnell in the campaign, at one point calling him "Captain Zero," and told Alaskans they needed to re-elect him because of his seniority and connections. He conceded he sometimes came across as arrogant and a bully, but said it's just because he fights for the state. Young said that Parnell's backers in the Club for Growth are extremist enemies of Alaska's interests.
Kodiak state Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux also ran in the Republican primary for the U.S. House seat, bringing in less than 10 percent of the vote by late Tuesday night.
Ted Stevens, who has been in the U.S. Senate since 1968, told Alaska Republican primary voters they needed to re-elect him for his effectiveness. Stevens, who has steered billions of dollars to the state, ran TV ads in the final week of the campaign with the theme, "Without Ted, we're toast."
"I'm doing my job - everyone knows that," Stevens said Tuesday night. "There's a cloud out there. It'll go away but it has to take time. Alaskans trust me. That's what this vote says. I've trusted them and they trust me."
Stevens was fired up after his easy Republican primary victory, saying he was ready to take on Democrat Begich in the November general election.
"This is not that tough - This is still a Republican state. You think they're going to go for Obama? You think they're going to go with (Sen. Charles) Schumer who's against drilling in the arctic and offshore?... They're voting against any kind of development in alaksa. If you want to send the mayor down to join them, that's not Alaska. That's not the alaska I know. I believe Alaskans know better," he said.
Brian Sprague, who voted for Stevens in the old Boniface Mall building in Anchorage, said Stevens has done a great job for the state.
"Everybody's got a few mistakes in their past ... but I haven't seen anything that he's done that would make me want to vote for somebody else," he said.
Vic Vickers, a recent Florida transplant who put $950,000 of his own money into a campaign to blanket the state with ads promising he'll "stop the corruption," was only pulling in 5.7 percent of the vote in his Republican primary challenge of Stevens.
Developer David Cuddy was running second to Stevens, bringing in about 28 percent of the vote.
Anchorage voter Ray Patterson said Stevens has done a lot of good for Alaska but feels it's time for him to move on. Rather than go for one of Stevens' Republican challengers, he went for Democrat Begich in Tuesday's voting.
"(Begich) kind of seems to be in the middle, and he goes for ANWR, and I just typically tend to vote more that way - people that kind of don't follow one way or the other," he said.
Begich said he doesn't plan to make corruption an issue in the campaign. The trial is "something for him to handle" he said of Stevens.
"I want people walking into voting booths voting for something," Begich said Tuesday night. "I want them to vote for something, and we're going to give them something to vote for."
Berkowitz, the Democrat who will face the Young-Parnell winner in November, watched the returns Tuesday and talked about his strategy for each of his potential opponents.
If he runs against Young:
"I've always said Don Young's done good things for Alaska. It's a question of who's going to be there for the future. And it's a question of who's going to be effective not just today, but five years from now and ten years from now," Berkowitz said.
If it's Parnell?
"I think Alaska needs someone who can fight for Alaska's interest, I think I could be a much more effective fighter than Sean Parnell could be," he said.
Benson, who lost to Berkowitz in the Democratic primary Tuesday night, said she could feel good because her campaign ran an honorable race. So what's next for her?
"I'll be looking for a job, if I don't have this one," Benson said. "Seriously."
Daily News reporters Julia O'Malley, Megan Holland, Wesley Loy, Kyle Hopkins, Elizabeth Bluemink and Erika Bolstad contributed to this story.