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Democrats Recruiting in Wake of Alaska Probes

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is looking for a top-tier candidate to take on Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) next year.

The former committee chairman first elected in 1973 has not had to sweat re-election in decades, but the DCCC believes he could be vulnerable in 2008, according to spokesman Fernando Cuevas.

“We have been in communication with local officials in Alaska to find the best viable candidate to run for this seat and we have spoken directly with at least two people,” Cuevas said Tuesday.

Cuevas would not reveal any names, but he asserted that everyone under consideration would be a serious challenger.

The DCCC’s public interest in the at-large House seat comes as Republicans in the reliably red state are reeling from plea bargaining agreements by close political associates of Young and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who also is up for re-election in 2008.

Like Young, Stevens — the longest-serving Republican in the Senate — traditionally has been a shoo-in for re-election, but his connection to the men who copped pleas in federal court also could weaken his political position.

There are at least three prominent Democratic officials in the El Dorado of the North who might consider a House or Senate bid.

Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich and state House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz are known as up-and-coming leaders interested in higher office.

Former Gov. Tony Knowles has shown he is still willing to serve, but after losing a close election to Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) in 2004 and being trounced in last year’s gubernatorial race by now-Gov. Sarah Palin (R), Knowles may not be up for a third straight campaign.

Officials at the National Republican Congressional Committee are very skeptical that Democrats will find a strong candidate to run against Young.

“We’ll believe it when we see it,” spokeswoman Julie Shutley said. “Either way we believe the outcome will be the same. Just because the dart landed on Alaska this week, doesn’t mean it’s a target. Don Young is a powerful, tremendously popular and enormously effective Member.”

Running against an unknown and underfunded Democrat last year, Young took 57 percent of the vote — his lowest winning percentage in a dozen years.

Sensing potential trouble for Young and Stevens, the DCCC began recruiting in earnest in January.

“Don Young is the sort of scandal-ridden Republican that we had success running against in 2006,” Cuevas claimed. “The people of Alaska have lost their patience with his unethical conduct.”

Young has not been accused of any wrong-doing, nor is he under investigation, but Democrats are banking that Young’s ties to some of Alaska’s biggest political powerbrokers, who are under investigation by the FBI, will hurt him.

Young’s campaign manager, Steven Dougherty, said it would be “inappropriate to comment on anything involving” the investigation or its political impact.

The FBI raided several state lawmakers’ offices, including that of state Sen. Ben Stevens (R), Ted Stevens’ son, over Labor Day weekend last year. On Monday, the ongoing corruption case netted guilty pleas from top officials of VECO, an oil services company.

One of those officials is Bill Allen. A GOP rainmaker, influential editorialist and confidant to both Young and Stevens, Allen admitted to bribing state lawmakers in court Monday.

VECO officials have donated more than $200,000 to Young’s campaign since 1989, making the company his single largest contributor, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The fact that Allen’s annual pig roast doubles as a Young fundraiser is well-known in Alaska.

Allen and his colleagues admitted they reimbursed VECO employees for their campaign contributions with company funds, which is illegal under both state and federal campaign laws, for at least the past two years, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

VECO executives were steady contributors to Stevens and his leadership political action committee, Murkowski and her father, former Sen. and former Gov. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska), over the years.

At least one incident of Stevens intervening on VECO’s behalf has been documented.

No one from VECO has made a campaign contribution to anyone since the FBI raid eight months ago.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee declined to comment Tuesday on whether it is seeking out a tough challenger for Stevens, the former Senate Appropriations chairman.

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