Alaska’s Terrain Shifting

Posted June 22, 2007 at 6:40pm

Republicans scoffed when Democrats first asserted they would seriously challenge Alaska’s two most entrenched Members of Congress next year.

National Republicans maintain that Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young will win re-election with the ease both have enjoyed through most of their careers. But the political terrain in the Last Frontier appears to be shifting, and two highly regarded young Democrats are seriously weighing bids against the state’s two most powerful GOP politicians.

Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich is getting the full-court press from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Former state House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz has been in serious talks with the DCCC and has expressed interest in the Senate race too.

Begich, the son of the late Rep. Nick Begich (D-Alaska) — Young’s predecessor — says he is considering the committees’ entreaties, but that he is focused on his mayoral duties now.

“It is very flattering … and I think it shows what we’ve accomplished these last four years as mayor,” Begich said.

“It shows people like what we are doing; it’s a huge compliment,” he acknowledged. “But every day it’s a call” from someone about his political future.

And it’s not just DSCC Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) burning up the phone lines to city hall. Begich said the encounter he recently had with a self-described Republican man who stopped him in the grocery store and asked him to run against either Stevens or Young has become common lately.

“I’ll make a decision hopefully as the summer finishes out here,” Begich said.

Berkowitz said he too will decide whether he’ll run for one of the two offices by summer’s end.

“They’re both exciting opportunities,” Berkowitz said. “I want to help put up the strongest candidates that we can. I want to see what the mayor wants to do; I want to see what other candidates want to do.”

Just a year ago it was unimaginable that any Democrat could dislodge Stevens, the Senate’s longest-serving Republican, or Young, who has held the state’s lone House seat since 1973. But that was before the FBI began a wide-ranging public corruption investigation that could ensnare both lawmakers.

The FBI told Stevens to maintain records relating to Alaska-based VECO Corp., an oil services company, and a federal grand jury convened to scrutinize whether VECO officials were improperly involved in a remodeling project at Stevens’ home in the resort town of Girdwood, Alaska.

Last month VECO founder Bill Allen and another former company officially admitted they bribed state lawmakers. Allen is a personal friend and major supporter of both Stevens and Young.

Allen annually threw large pig roasts benefiting Young’s campaigns. Separately, questions have arisen about an earmark Young sponsored when he was chairman of the House Transportation Committee that could lead to a financial windfall for one of his contributors.

A poll commissioned by the Alaska Democratic Party and conducted by Anchorage’s Hays Research Group in mid-June showed fewer than half of the 401 Alaskans surveyed approved of the job either Young or Stevens was doing.

“That race is high on our target list and we’re confident we’ll have a strong candidate in the race,” said Fernando Cuevas, a DCCC spokesman. “Young’s numbers are terrible right now and he’s extremely vulnerable.”

National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Julie Shutley said she sees no cause for concern.

Young “has been re-elected for 18 cycles,” she said. “He was re-elected last year in a horrible cycle.”

Young won an 18th full term with almost 57 percent of the vote, but his unknown and seriously underfunded opponent, Diane Benson (D), captured 40 percent.

According to her Web site, Benson is seeking the Democratic nomination to face Young again.

Young’s worst showing was in 1992 when he won with just 47 percent.

Stevens’ smallest victory margin was when he won a 1970 special election with 60 percent of the vote.

“I think any time you poll directly after any stories like this, you get a flash response, but the election is a long time away,” National Republican Senatorial Committee spokeswoman Rebecca Fisher said.

“Stevens will sail to re-election,” she predicted.

Despite the positive talk of party officials in Washington, D.C., Stevens, Young and Democrats should all be concerned about the turn Alaska politics took last year. Seeking a second term as governor, former Sen. Frank Murkowski (R) badly lost the GOP primary to Sarah Palin (R), a former small-town mayor who has been vocal about corruption within the state party.

After knocking off Murkowski, she took 48 percent of the vote in the general election to defeat former Gov. Tony Knowles (D).

Palin’s approval rating was above 80 percent in the latest poll, and several ambitious Republicans are considering following her lead and taking on the established GOP incumbents.

At least six fairly well-known Republicans are said to be weighing challenging Young or Stevens. Former Lt. Gov Loren Leman is on the list, as is former state Senate President Mike Miller, who challenged Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) for the GOP nod when she sought a full term in 2004.

As governor, Frank Murkowski, appointed her to finish his Senate term after he won the governorship in 2002.

Former state Sen. John Binkley, whom Palin also defeated in last year’s gubernatorial primary, and state House Speaker John Harris, also are said to be in the mix.

Shutley says Young will face no serious GOP opposition.

“I think that possibility has been out there before with Young and his record has gotten him put on the ballot and re-elected,” she said.

Berkowitz said Alaskans are finally fed up with one-party domination and corruption.

“People thought that was the way it was and that’s just the way it always would be,” he said. “You had a confluence of power consolidating in a handful of people and when you have that happen, it’s corrupting.”

Begich, who cannot seek another term as mayor in 2009, and Berkowitz, who gave up his state House seat to run for lieutenant governor with Knowles last year, have discussed their options.

“Ethan and I met [recently],” Begich said. “We talked about what his interests are and kind of what I’m thinking. “It’s not a decision that I need to make today.”

Privately, Democrats say Begich is best suited to take on Stevens while Berkowitz should run against Young.

Both DSCC and DCCC officials refused to say which potential candidate they prefer.

“We’re confident that we will have a strong candidate,” DSCC spokesman Matt Miller said.

With Begich and Berkowitz talking regularly and with both setting the same timeline for making a decision, it is highly doubtful that Democrats would find themselves in a situation where the two would face each other in a primary. Both men have young families and enjoy living in Alaska, Berkowitz said.

As a result, national Democrats could end up with the slate they most desire. But they also could end up having to start recruiting all over again in September.