Sen. Ted Stevens' reputation for bringing home the bacon may have been the thing that resonated most with Alaska voters in the days leading up to the election.
Stevens appeared to be trailing before Tuesday, but with nearly all precincts reporting he held a razor-thin lead today over Democrat Mark Begich, a popular two-term Anchorage mayor.
With 99 percent of precincts reporting today, Stevens led with 48 percent of the vote compared to 47 percent for Begich, with only about 3,500 votes separating the two. His political future hangs in the balance with the counting of roughly 40,000 absentee ballots, as well as 9,000 early votes and questioned ballots. Those votes won't be counted for days.
If Stevens prevails, he would be the first convicted felon to be re-elected to the U.S. Senate. But Stevens' Senate colleagues also could expel him, putting an end to the longest run by a Republican in the history of the Senate.
Stevens, with 40 years in the Senate, reminded voters in the days leading up to the election of his skill in steering federal dollars to Alaska, said Stephen Haycox, a University of Alaska Anchorage history professor.
"Remember in the Thursday-night debate with Mark Begich he reminded us that 40 percent of all jobs in Alaska are related to the federal appropriation," Haycox said. "Alaska is sitting on a very narrow economy. If those federal jobs go away, there are not other jobs to replace them."
Stevens underscored that point in a two-minute infomercial aired the day before the election. He told voters he had recently secured $200 million for the Alaska military.
According to Citizens Against Government Waste, Stevens is the nation's pork king. He helped secure nearly $380 million in pork for Alaska in 2008, amounting to $556 for each Alaska citizen, the taxpayer watchdog group said.
A University of Alaska Anchorage study also found that federal spending has doubled in the past 20 years. The study said in 2002 the federal government spent $7.6 billion in Alaska, accounting for one in three jobs.
Voters in the days before the election weren't likely to tell pollsters they were going to vote for a convicted felon, Haycox said, but in the privacy of the voting booth the importance of having a job and the economic well-being of the state won out.
When it came right down to it, many Alaskans probably didn't feel that what Stevens did was all that wrong, Haycox said, certainly not rising to the level of sacrificing the politician they fondly call "Uncle Ted."
Stevens last week was convicted of seven felonies for failing to disclose more than $250,000 in gifts and services from former friend and oil services company executive Bill Allen.
Haycox said the law requires that Stevens disclose any gifts valued at as little as $250 dollars - a threshold that Haycox described as "incredibly low."
"They are violations of law but many Alaskans look at that and say 'wait a minute, this is not a second home or a private airplane. This is a Barcalounger for crying out loud,'" Haycox said. "It's not like this guy goes out and steals cars. It is like his friend made some gifts and then was pretty deliberate about covering some of that up."
In Alaska, where oil taxes account for 85 percent of the state's general revenue, there are some Republicans who simply won't vote for a Democrat, Haycox said. That's because when it comes to regulation and taxation, Republicans and the oil industry think the same way, he said.
"We are extremely vulnerable and dependent here on federal money and oil money," Haycox said.
Stevens chose to make no public appearances or make any statements Wednesday. He was spending time relaxing with family, said spokesman Aaron Saunders.
Begich was expected to hold an afternoon news conference.
The Stevens campaign predicted Wednesday that Stevens would remain on top when all the votes are tallied.
"Yesterday, Alaskans finally had their say and the voters stood by Ted Stevens," campaign manager Mike Tibbles said in a statement.