Leaders of the anti-tax, business-friendly Club for Growth like to demonstrate their independence from the Republican Party. Their recent moves — such as commissioning a new poll that purports to demonstrate the vulnerability of two GOP incumbents in Alaska — suggest they are preparing to poke Republican officials in the eye yet again.
But the conservative group also could stymie Democrats’ hopes of capitalizing on the widening federal probe of political corruption in Alaska that has touched both Sen. Ted Stevens (R) and Rep. Don Young (R).
In a July 18 news release, the club slammed Stevens and Young as “two of the Congress’ most notorious porkers, often threatening other lawmakers while they waste taxpayer dollars.” The release accompanied the results of a voter survey commissioned by the Club for Growth Political Action Committee.
“Like the rest of the country, Alaska taxpayers are fed up with runaway spending, wasteful projects, and the corruption that they can breed,” Club for Growth President Pat Toomey said in the statement. “Defending his pork career in 2001, Stevens told National Public Radio: ‘I am guilty of asking the Senate for pork and proud of the Senate for giving it to me.
“Clearly, the sentiment isn’t shared by Republican primary voters back home,” he said.
The now-infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” championed by Stevens has become the cause célèbre for politicians of all stripes who want Congress to cut back on earmarks.
The Basswood Research poll revealed that 66 percent of GOP voters disapproved of Stevens’ proposal to spend $223 million to build a bridge from Ketchikan to sparsely populated Gravina Island.
Basswood surveyed 300 likely Republican primary voters July 14-15. The survey had a 5.66-point margin of error.
But Club for Growth officials are not ready to say they will help finance a primary challenge to Stevens or Young.
“Right now we’re just looking at the races,” club spokeswoman Nachama Soloveichik said when asked if the group has Republican challengers ready for either veteran lawmaker. “Don Young and Ted Stevens have horrendous records and, obviously, it would be nice if we could replace them with real economic conservatives.
“But at this point we are just keeping our eyes and ears open,” Soloveichik said.
A spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee rejected the idea that Stevens faces any risk to his re-election. “We look forward to working with Sen. Stevens over the next election to ensure that he can continue his fight for the people of Alaska long after his re-election next November,” the spokeswoman said.
At least seven Republicans reportedly are mulling bids. 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, former Sen. Frank Murkowski appointed her to finish his Senate term after he won the governorship in 2002.
Former state Sen. John Binkley, state Speaker John Harris and state Sen. Sean Parnell also are said to be in the mix.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee are wooing Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich and former state House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, respectively, to take on Stevens and Young.
“Republicans and Democrats [no longer] look at it in different ways; across the board Alaskans are tired of Stevens’ and Young’s runaway spending, wasteful projects and corruption,” DCCC spokesman Fernando Cuevas asserted.
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, just after Begich’s father, the late Rep. Nick Begich (D), died in office.
But that was before the growing investigation began in September.
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.
And VECO founder Bill Allen and another former company official admitted they bribed state lawmakers. Allen is a personal friend and major supporter of both Stevens and Young.
While Cuevas and DSCC spokesman Matt Miller maintain the Club for Growth’s possible involvement spells trouble for Republicans, Alaskan politics are just unpredictable enough to turn such conventional wisdom on its head.
Seeking a second term for governor, Frank Murkowski got walloped in last year’s GOP primary by former Wasilla Mayor Sarah Palin (R), 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).
“It’s a clear sign that Ted Stevens’ problems are growing when even Republicans in the state are dissatisfied with him,” Miller said. “Primary challenges are never good for incumbents, nor for the party that holds the seat.”
National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Julie Shutley said she sees no cause for concern about the House seat.
“Our position is still that Don Young has been a strong and independent voice for Alaskans,” she said. “He has fought for them and been a good representative.”
Another possible wrinkle for Young is NRCC Chairman Tom Cole’s (Okla.) pledge to not financially back incumbents who face serious Republican opposition.
“Of course, in a general election we’ll be as helpful as we can be,” Shutley said.
Young’s campaign manager did not return a request for comment about the club poll by press time.
Stevens’ office declined to comment.