More than half the absentee and questioned ballots still to be counted in Alaska's U.S. Senate race come from areas of the state that backed Democrat Mark Begich on Election Day.
That's not a good sign for Republican Sen. Ted Stevens as he seeks to overcome Begich's 814-vote lead when counting resumes today of just over 41,000 remaining ballots. A Daily News analysis, based on data provided by the state Division of Elections, shows that 56 percent of those ballots come from districts that favored Begich on Nov. 4.
The state will count about 40 percent of remaining ballots today and the rest early next week. Democrats like the trend but are wary of expressing too much confidence in a state that for decades has proven a graveyard for their hopes.
"I'll celebrate when I hear the words ... 'and the winner is,' " Begich said.
The Stevens campaign has fallen silent, offering no comment on the ballot count. Republican Party of Alaska Chairman Randy Ruedrich said he's still a believer in a Stevens victory, and he argues it's not all about which districts the votes come from.
"It depends on who voted in those districts too ... There were many more Republican absentee ballots issued. The number of Republican ballots issued was slightly more than 10,000 more than the Democrat (absentee ballots)," Ruedrich said.
The state Democratic Party didn't challenge Ruedrich's figures but noted most of Alaska's voters are not registered with either party.
The Daily News analysis shows that 59 percent of the absentee ballots to be counted came from election districts that voted for Begich on Election Day, and just over half of the questioned ballots came from Begich districts.
Large numbers of ballots remain to be counted from Begich majority districts including Sitka, the university district of Fairbanks, rural Southeast Alaska and Cordova. The state also has many votes left to count from Stevens strongholds like North Pole, Sterling/Nikiski, and Palmer. There are not as many of them, but an overwhelming Stevens showing in those areas could make a big difference.
Today the state expects to count all absentee and questioned ballots left from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and northern and western Alaska. Elections officials will also count most, if not all, Fairbanks ballots today. Tuesday is the ballot count for Anchorage and Southeast, where the majority of outstanding votes lie.
BACK AND FORTH
It's been a seesaw race. Pre-election polls predicted a comfortable Begich win, but Stevens led by about 3,000 votes after Election Day. Over the next week, it appeared Stevens would be re-elected despite a jury finding him guilty of felonies for lying on Senate forms about gifts and home renovations he received from the oil field services company Veco Corp. But Begich then surged into the lead after Wednesday's count of 60,000 early, questioned and absentee ballots.
Three election districts that favored Stevens on Election Day flipped to a Begich majority after Wednesday's count -- Campbell Creek in Anchorage and two Fairbanks districts.
But strategists from both parties say that sort of Begich sweep won't necessarily continue as the vote tally resumes today. The absentee ballots counted Wednesday were cast earlier than those the state will add up today and next week.
ROOM FOR OPTIMISM
Begich made a big push for his supporters to vote early. Also, Republicans believe Stevens got a boost when he returned to Alaska from his trial less than a week before the election and began rallying supporters. People who voted earlier would not have been part of that lift.
Stevens' supporters think he can come back as more absentee votes cast following his homecoming are counted. Still, the fact that the votes are coming from Begich majority districts leave the Democrats' supporters quietly optimistic.
Stevens is in Washington, D.C., as Congress prepares to start a short session next week. He has problems other than the election, facing a potential Tuesday vote by his Senate Republican colleagues on whether to strip him of his committee assignments. Sen. Jim DeMint, a Republican from South Carolina, is leading the charge to punish Stevens.
Stevens maintains he'll be vindicated on appeal, and it's not clear if Senate Republicans will press the issue if the new count shows he's likely to lose to Begich.
Find Sean Cockerham online at adn.com/contact/scockerham or call him at 257-4344.
The final countdown
The Division of Elections will count the remaining ballots as follows:
About 510 questioned ballots from Southeast, the Peninsula and Southwest Alaska
About 5,180 absentee and questioned ballots from Mat-Su
Questioned, absentee ballots from Richardson Highway and the Interior
About 3,600 absentee and questioned ballots from Western and Northwest Alaska, and North Slope
Leftover absentee ballots from Richardson Highway and the Interior
About 15,700 questioned and absentee ballots from Anchorage
About 8,300 absentee ballots from Southeast, Kenai Peninsula and Southwest Alaska