Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens maintained his lead over challenger Mark Begich this morning with 99 percent of the precincts counted, just a week after being found guilty of seven felonies and pre-election polls showing him in deep trouble.
With all but three of Alaska's 438 precincts reporting, the Republican Stevens held a 1.5 percent vote advantage over Democrat Begich -- 48 percent to 46.5 percent. About 4,000 votes separate the candidates. The thin margin means the Senate race might not be decided for two weeks.
Still to be counted are roughly 40,000 absentee ballots, with more expected to arrive in the mail, as well as 9,000 uncounted early votes and thousands of questioned ballots. The state Elections Division has up to 15 days after the election to tally all the remaining ballots before finalizing the count.
If the lead holds, Stevens will shock the nation and be the first person ever re-elected to the U.S. Senate after being found guilty on criminal charges. Polls had shown the Republican down by at least 8 percentage points on the day before the election.
But Stevens was defying the pollsters with Tuesday's returns.
He held an election-night party at the Snow Goose Restaurant and Brewery in downtown Anchorage. The mood was subdued before the early returns came in, with Barack Obama's victory in the presidential race and the dire polling numbers for Stevens dampening spirits. But the room of about 200 people exploded in cheers at news of the election returns. A new energy filled the air and people lined up to give hugs to Stevens.
People chanted "Six more years, six more years." Stevens was smiling but cautious.
"It's too early to tell," he said.
Stevens left the party just after 11 p.m., holding up both his arms to the crowd. "Good night, good night, thank you all," he said before driving away with his daughter Lily.
The Begich campaign party at the Anchor Pub was also packed and didn't slow down with the returns showing the Democrat trailing. Begich seemed in good spirits. He pointed out that, despite what the pollsters predicted, he'd always insisted it was going to be a close race.
"Truly an Alaskan race. It will go right down to the wire," he said.
Stevens was drawing on an enormous reservoir of loyalty and good will he's built up in 40 years as a senator. Many Stevens supporters have an unshakable faith in the 84-year-old, saying if he says he's not guilty then he's not. Stevens also tapped into Alaskan distrust of Outsiders, hammering on the fact it was Washington, D.C., jurors who convicted him, and saying Alaskans would never have done so.
LOYALTY TO STEVENS
Stevens was honored as "Alaskan of the Century" in the late 1990s and the state Legislature named the Anchorage airport after him. He steered billions of dollars to the state from his perch on the Appropriations Committee, and he has had a hand in laws that shaped Alaska since statehood.
That was before his legal problems, but clearly, for many voters, the verdict last week and the possibility he won't actually be allowed to serve did not trump their loyalty.
Jean Weatter, who voted at the Wasilla post office, said she went with Stevens but it wasn't easy.
"It was very hard because I still want to back Stevens and Young but yet all of these things were going on. I prayed about it - I just thought of all the things they've done for Alaska," Weatter said.
Don Jelich, walking out of a Spenard polling station in Anchorage, voted for Stevens as well.
"Because I know the ol' boy, he's been around for a while and done a lot for Alaska yada yada," he said.
FACING HIS COLLEAGUES
One question is whether his fellow senators would allow Stevens back in their midst.
It takes a two-thirds vote to expel a senator. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said there's no doubt the Senate would kick out Stevens. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate Republican minority leader, has said Stevens should resign and that "if he is re-elected and the felony charge stands through the appeals process, there is zero chance that a senator with a felony conviction would not be expelled from the Senate."
Stevens claimed there was prosecutorial misconduct, that he'll be vindicated on appeal and able to keep his seat in the Senate.
The state Republican Party urged voters to support Stevens despite his cloudy future, saying that, even if he resigns or is expelled, at least there'd be a chance for a different Republican to run for the seat in the special election that would result.
Some Alaskans who voted for the Republican presidential ticket couldn't bring themselves to stick with Stevens.
"I have been staunchly Republican all my life, (but) honor is huge," said Catherine Whaley of Wasilla, who voted for Begich. "You might be able to get more done for the state of Alaska, but it's about how you do it."
Stevens rankled some voters in the past week by saying he hasn't been convicted, a statement technically true until his sentencing but one that appeared to defy common sense.
"That, you know, 'I'm not convicted.' What's that? What's that? He's a crook,' " said Begich voter Jim Wallman of Dillingham. "He's a 40-year crook. He has done a lot for this state, (but) time to go. Time for a change."
Stevens had little time to campaign, returning to Alaska after his trial with less than a week before the election. Begich, meanwhile, was holding town hall meetings across the state, telling voters he was a pragmatic centrist who wouldn't be beholden to the national Democratic leaders who recruited him to run.
Begich, the 46-year-old mayor of Anchorage, campaigned on generational change and argued that Stevens can no longer be effective for the state. He said Tuesday night he's used to close races. Begich won his first mayoral race in 2003 by just 18 votes. That race took two weeks to decide, just as this one might.