Don Young, Alaska's lone congressman since 1973 but running an uphill re-election campaign for months, appears headed for a surprising upset of Democrat Ethan Berkowitz, the challenger predicted by polls to win Tuesday's contest.
With all but three of Alaska's 438 precincts counted this morning, Young was leading by nearly 17,000 votes. Many absentee and early-ballot votes have yet to be counted. Berkowitz had not conceded late Tuesday, and Young was upbeat.
"I'm feeling very comfortable where we are now," Young said. "I like what I see. The votes are there."
Berkowitz noted that there were many ballots still to be counted.
"This election is not going to be over for several days, and we're going to fight to the very end," he said.
Before Election Day, even Young's aides said if he won, it would be a remarkable comeback.
"I think this will be one of those classic upsets ... when the polls were wrong," said Anchorage political consultant and pollster Dave Dittman, whose own poll over the weekend showed Young trailing. "You talk about this for, you know, as long as anybody is interested."
Asked if he was surprised at the way the numbers were running, Young said, "Not me. ... The pollsters were wrong and they've always been wrong. ... They don't understand Alaska."
Polls showed Young in an uphill battle in the August primary as well. He eeked out a narrow win that wasn't final until three weeks after the election when absentee and questioned ballots were counted - and left Berkowitz a big head start in campaigning for the general election.
Young, a 75-year-old Republican trying for his 19th term in the U.S. House, last lost an election in 1972 to the late Congressman Nick Begich, killed in a plane crash that October. Begich defeated Young in the general election the following month, but Young won a special election in March 1973 and has been Alaska's congressman since.
Weeks of tracking polls showed some movement in favor of the Republicans, but nothing like the returns into the night were showing. Dittman attributed it to a surprisingly high showing by Republican voters, perhaps brought out to the polls by the Republican's vice presidential candidate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Asked if the John McCain-Palin ticket losing nationally would have an effect on Alaska, Young said "Alaska is going to do great. As long as you have Don Young and Ted Stevens, you're going to do all right."
Just before 11 p.m., Berkowitz marched into the Egan convention center - Election Central - with a crowd of supporters waving his campaign signs. "Ethan! Ethan!" they shouted.
Moments later, Young marched in with his own cheering throng. "Don Young! Don Young!" they shouted, though some in the crowd booed as he made his way through the crowded room.
Young is perhaps best known for his efforts to bring federal dollars to Alaska through earmarks that budget watchdogs have criticized as pork. When critics wanted to channel money he had designated for Alaska bridges to Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts, Young boomed "They can kiss my ear!"
Berkowitz, 46, represented an Anchorage district for 10 years in the state Legislature, including eight years as House minority leader. He was known as a quick wit and once chided other legislators for accepting notes passed to them on the House floor from then-Veco chairman Bill Allen, who since has pleaded guilty to bribery and conspiracy. "This is our House," Berkowitz scolded.
The cloud of the ongoing federal corruption investigation seeped into the race through mailers and television ads from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee calling Young "too corrupt for Alaska" and declaring that he is under four separate federal investigations looking into, among other things, his ties to Allen and his role in securing a $10 million earmark for a Florida road. Then, in his newest television ad and in the final debate in the race, Berkowitz brought up the corruption issue directly.
Young, who spent some $1.2 million in campaign funds on unspecified legal fees over the past year-and-a-half, has not been charged with anything.
Voter Jesse Smith, 37, casting his ballot Tuesday at St. Francis Parish in Muldoon, said he went with Berkowitz, along with Begich.
"I know it sounds canned, but change all around," Smith said. "Whether (Young) did it or not, he's being investigated," Smith said.
But other voters seemed to side with Young's argument that his 35 years of experience are too valuable to give up.
Steve Wegg, a 68-year-old salesman casting his ballot in Mountain View, said "Young has done a good job. When you are in a position of power, a lot of people are going to ask for favors." He said he voted for Young.
Two years ago, Democrat Diane Benson got 40 percent of the vote even though Young outspent her 17 to 1.
This year, Young seemed ready for the challenge, first with his primary opponent, Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell, whom he squeaked by with 304 votes, and then with Berkowitz.
It's surprising to some political observers, but Berkowitz and Young - who may seem like polar opposites - appear to genuinely like and respect each other.
"I enjoy your company," Young told Berkowitz at a recent public television debate. "There's not much difference if you listen to these answers between you and I."
That may be a stretch. On issues including the federal bailout, global warming and the war in Iraq, the two differ.
Still, Ivan Moore, a political consultant and long-time friend of Berkowitz's, said some see the candidates as similarly scrappy.
"They are both kind of pugnacious," said Moore, who isn't working for Berkowitz in the general election.
Berkowitz steered clear of the corruption issue for almost the entire campaign. Then at last week's public television debate last week, Berkowitz asked Young directly how he could be an effective congressman when saddled with the federal investigations.
Young said other Congress members still seek out his opinion.
"They all know me. Some don't like me. Some like me. But they all respect me. There has been no diminishing my capability," Young answered.
Late in the campaign, Young went on the attack as well. He began airing television advertisements contending that if Berkowitz were elected, taxes for a middle-income family would go up 191 percent.
That theme was echoed in an ad about taxes and gun rights that ran Tuesday in the Daily News and featured a large - but dated - photo of Young and Palin, the vice presidential candidate. "Taxpayers and gun owners need a high-caliber team in Washington," the ad said.
Palin didn't give permission for the ad, but then it didn't say she was endorsing the congressman, said Young's campaign spokesman, Mike Anderson. The photo was taken years ago at an event when Palin was Wasilla mayor, he said
At any rate, the assertion about taxes is not right, said David Shurtleff, Berkowitz's spokesman.
Daily News reporters Richard Mauer, Megan Holland and Elizabeth Bluemink, as well as Tessa Borce of Fairbanks, contributed to this story. Find Lisa Demer online at adn.com/contact/ldemer or call 257-4390.