Begich lead over Stevens grows

Sean Cockerham | Tribune Media Services
Meg Simonian and John Vezina with the Begich campaign look over question ballot returns as State Division of Elections workers count votes in Anchorage on Tuesday, November 11, 2008. Bill Roth / ANCHORAGE DAILY NEWS

Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich's lead over Sen. Ted Stevens is growing as ballot counting continues today in the race for U.S. Senate.

The latest numbers, issued just before 1 p.m., show Begich up by 2,374 votes.

The state has counted over 16,000 absentee and questioned ballots so far today from Southeast Alaska, Anchorage, the Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak. Elections officials expect to count nearly 8,000 more this afternoon.

All the votes left to count today are absentee ballots from the Anchorage area. The Division of Elections expects to have the results between 4 and 5 p.m.

Today's count should pretty much decide the race, although there will be overseas absentees to count over the next couple days and a likely recount in early December.

Since the state moved to mostly machine counting, recent Alaska recounts have resulted in little change in the final tally.

Begich has so far today doubled the 1,022-vote lead he held over Stevens on Friday, the last time the state counted votes in the race.

If Begich wins, he'll be the first Democrat to represent Alaska in the U.S. Senate in nearly 30 years. His victory would also put the Democrats one step closer to their dream of having the 60 seats needed for a filibuster-proof majority in the U.S. Senate. To get 60 seats, the Democrats would also need Al Franken to beat Republican Sen. Norm Coleman in a Minnesota recount, and for Jim Martin to beat Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss in a Georgia runoff election.

For Alaskans, the more sweeping impact of today's count is the potential close of the "Uncle Ted" era. Stevens' run started not long after statehood, when Gov. Wally Hickel appointed him to the Senate in 1968. Stevens has never even had a close election since, often drawing just token opposition.

Stevens steered billions of dollars to Alaska and had a hand in most of the major federal legislation that's shaped Alaska. He was honored as "Alaskan of the Century" and the state Legislature named the Anchorage airport after him.

That was before a Washington, D.C., jury found him guilty of seven felonies a week before the election for lying on financial disclosure forms about $250,000 of gifts and home renovations from the oilfield services company Veco.

Now Stevens, 85, is trying to be the first person ever elected to the Senate following a felony verdict. Stevens is appealing the verdict.

Election results: Races statewide
Complete Alaska election coverage
By SEAN COCKERHAM