Young, Stevens still connect with voters

GOP SUPPORT: Although races haven't been called, leads confirm their appeal.

November 6, 2008 

While a Democratic wave swept the rest of the nation, not even FBI investigations could keep Alaska's Republican Congressional delegation from holding leads the day after the election.

Big support from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough gave Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, who a jury found guilty of seven felonies last week, a narrow edge over Democrat Mark Begich. Stevens is appealing the verdict.

There are still more than 55,000 votes to be counted in the race, and the outcome won't be known until at least Nov. 14.

Alaska Rep. Don Young, under federal investigation, appeared victorious in his race for re-election, although Democratic challenger Ethan Berkowitz still won't concede defeat.

Alaska Democrats said this was going to be their year, but the results are far different from what pollsters predicted. Some strategists suggested a "Palin effect," where support for the Republican vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, helped Stevens and Young. That's ironic, given Alaska Gov. Palin's backing of Young's opponent in the Republican primary and her call for Stevens to resign from office.

Palin is from Wasilla, in what turned out to be Stevens' stronghold of the Mat-Su area.

"I do think having Palin on the ticket had folks going to the polls to vote for that part of the ticket," said Claudia Douglas, a state Democratic Party official from Wasilla. "And I think that it's almost like you just go down and vote the Republicans on the rest of the ballot, it's almost just a natural thing to go right down the line."

Stevens had a 10,000-vote margin over Begich in the small towns of the Southcentral road system north of Anchorage and drew nearly 60 percent of the vote in the Palmer-Wasilla-Big Lake election districts.

Curtis Thayer, who has long been active in Alaska Republican campaigns, said Stevens did a good job of solidifying his support when he returned to Alaska last week following his trial. Stevens held rallies in places including Mat-Su and the Kenai Peninsula, another area where he was successful.

"He's just built up a lot of goodwill and when he come home and there were all those rallies for him, I just think he struck a chord. ... he really brought the base back," Thayer said.

STEVENS-BEGICH RACE NOT OVER YET

But Stevens only leads Begich by 3,353 votes, out of more than 209,000 cast.

"I would just say to Senator Stevens and his team, this race isn't over yet," Begich, the mayor of Anchorage, said Wednesday. "We've got a long haul."

The Alaska Division of Elections said still to be counted are more than 55,000 absentee, questioned, and uncounted early votes.

"Twenty percent of the vote hasn't even been counted," Begich said. "Areas that (Stevens) used to carry, Bush Alaska -- Dillingham, Kotzebue, Nome, Bethel, Barrow, we won them all, we won them big ... And there's a lot of absentee and questioned ballots coming in from those areas."

The two candidates split Anchorage. Begich had a narrow edge in Fairbanks and dominated voting in Southeast Alaska.

Begich said the Democrats made a big push for early voting, and many of those ballots have not been counted yet. His campaign was also optimistic about military absentee votes, given that Begich topped Stevens in election districts on Alaska's military installations at Fort Richardson, Fort Wainwright and Elmendorf and Eielson Air Force Bases.

Stevens made no public appearance on Wednesday, but his campaign manager said voting trends so far suggest the uncounted absentee ballots will go Republican and add to Stevens' lead.

Both sides will have lawyers watching the remaining count.

There were glitches on Election Day. In the village of Wainwright, elections workers wrongly gave 90 Begich votes to Libertarian David Haase and 84 Stevens votes to nonpartisan candidate Ted Gianoutsos. It was corrected Wednesday, but there was still no explanation of why the village of Nightmute showed 18 votes for Gianoutsos and none for Stevens.

RESULTS PUZZLING TO SOME

Alaska's voter turnout numbers won't be clear until all the absentee ballots are in. But it's not expected to reach the 66 percent turnout of the last presidential election year, 2004, and there's dispute over whether it even makes the 60 percent of 2000.

Given that the state's governor was the vice presidential nominee and that Stevens and Young were fighting for their lives, political watchers like Michael McDonald, an associate professor who studies voting at George Mason University in Virginia, were scratching their heads over the Alaska turnout.

National Democratic groups poured millions into defeating Stevens and Young. Democratic leaders, like Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who heads up the party's efforts to elect Democratic House members, were puzzling over the results.

"Look, you have a situation with Don Young where we believed that his conduct and his record would lead people to support the change in direction," Van Hollen said. "I think a lot of people also expected to see that with respect to Sen. Ted Stevens after he was found guilty. Clearly for some reason -- and I'm not second-guessing -- but for whatever reason, Sen. Stevens' conduct, as judged by a jury of his peers -- as well as the activities of Don Young -- were not enough."

Republican Party of Alaska Chairman Randy Ruedrich said he's not surprised at the result. The Republican voter registrations were good and the voter contact effort was "pretty solid." There's also the Alaska appeal of Stevens and Young, he said, who have been in office since before many of their constituents were born.

"It's the ability to come home and connect with voters and get them motivated," Ruedrich said.


Daily News reporter Erika Bolstad contributed to this story. Find Sean Cockerham online at adn.com/contact/scockerham or call him at 257-4344.

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