Video: Stevens fights on

By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 10/28/2008 4:23:00 PM ET 2008-10-28T20:23:00

Alaska Republicans launched “Plan B” Tuesday after Ted Stevens, the longest-serving Republican senator in history, was convicted on seven felony counts of failing to report gifts on financial disclosure forms.

The pressure on Stevens to resign was intense, coming even from the highest levels of his own party. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican presidential nominee, and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, both called on the senator to step aside.

Stevens has served in the Senate for 40 years and has never been re-elected with less than two-thirds of the vote. But even before he was convicted, polls showed him in a tight race with Democrat Mark Begich, the mayor of Anchorage.

Stevens faces up to five years in prison on each of the seven counts arising from his failure to  the remodeling of his home in the ski resort town of Girdwood and other gifts from Bill Allen, former head of VECO Corp., an oil-services company. But the 84-year-old senator is considered likely to receive a lighter sentence because of his age and his years of public service.

Much remains unclear on what could happen next.

Stevens, who is not required to give up his position because of the convictions, said he would appeal and would abandon neither his seat nor his re-election campaign. Senators have the option of voting to expel him on the recommendation of the ethics committee, but the Senate is not scheduled to return to session until after the election.

Even if Stevens were to step aside, Alaska law contradicts itself on how he would be replaced, raising the prospect of a prolonged court battle before Alaskans could vote in a special election.

GOP: Vote for Stevens anyway
Republicans had banked on Stevens’ acquittal to bolster their chances of preventing a veto-proof 60-vote Democratic majority in the Senate. After he was convicted, they turned to what they called “Plan B” — re-electing Stevens anyway so they would have a shot at deciding his replacement next year.

Leaders of the state Republican Party stressed that they still believed Stevens was innocent, but they asked Alaskans to vote for him even if they thought he was guilty. If Stevens were to take his seat and then resign, a special election would be held to replace him, a prospect party leaders find far preferable to simply handing the seat to Begich next week.

“If you don’t vote for Ted Stevens now, you don’t have an option in the future to have a conservative candidate,” said McHugh Pierre, chief spokesman for the state Republican Party. “You’re stuck. You’re stuck with a liberal who does not represent your views and beliefs.”

But Democrats said Stevens should resign immediately.

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“He knew what he was doing (was) wrong, he did it anyway and then he lied to Alaskans about it,” said Patti Higgins, chairwoman of the state Democratic Party. “Alaskans deserve better than that. It’s time for us to elect an honest and ethical senator who can move our state forward.”

Support for Stevens appeared to be limited mainly to state Republican leaders.

In an interview with CNBC , McCain — who has butted heads with Stevens on numerous issues, including oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the practice of “earmarking” federal appropriations for local projects — said Stevens should resign. His campaign issued a statement saying Stevens had “broken his trust with the people and ... he should now step down.”

Video: Palin chastises Stevens

Palin, also interviewed by CNBC, said Stevens “needs to step aside and allow our state to elect someone who will be supportive of those ideals of America: the free enterprise, the missions that we’re on, to win the war, those things that have got to take place in order to progress this country.

“Ted Stevens has got to play a very statesmanlike role in this now.”

The White House said it would not comment on the case while it remained under appeal, but Sens. John Ensign of Nevada, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate Republican leader, made it clear that Stevens had lost the national party’s backing.

“Ted Stevens served his constituents for over 40 years, and I am disappointed to see his career end in disgrace,” Ensign said.

McConnell said in a statement: “Senator Stevens was found guilty by a jury of his peers, and now must face the consequences of those actions. As a result of his conviction, Senator Stevens will be held accountable so the public trust can be restored.”

Stevens pushes ahead with campaign
The immediate future is in the hands of Stevens, who said he would to fight for re-election.

“I am innocent,” he said in a statement after his conviction on Tuesday. “I remain a candidate for the United States Senate. I will come home on Wednesday and ask for your vote.”

Voters appeared divided, but many said the convictions would not change their votes one way or the other.

“I don’t think some clerical error, some paperwork, should define his professional career,” said Carl Washington, a restaurant cook in Anchorage. “That man has backed this state, has put this state on the map.”

But Dianne Parks, also of Anchorage, said Stevens had it coming.

“He has maybe seen himself too powerful,” Parks said. “I think he overstepped, and unfortunately he’s going to have to pay for it now.”

‘Florida in Juneau’?
The latest poll in the race, conducted Oct. 17-19 for NBC affiliate KTUU of Anchorage and The Anchorage Press, showed the race essentially tied, with just 1 point separating Stevens and Begich. 

Even so, Carl Shepro, a professor of political science at the University of Alaska in Anchorage, said that Stevens’ connection to Alaskans ran deep and that it was “very possible” that he would still win next week.

“A lot of people feel the senator is completely innocent and that there are people who have been doing favors for him without him being aware of it,” Shepro said. “The senator is very popular in Alaska.”

That raises the potential for a “Florida in Juneau” court battle to determine how his successor would be picked.

Stevens is not scheduled to be sentenced until after a status hearing in late February, several weeks after he would have been sworn into a new term. Were he then to resign or be forced out by his fellow senators, state law mandates a special election to replace him within 60 to 90 days.

But the law is unclear on how, exactly, that would happen. In 2004, the Legislature changed the law to say the governor must appoint a temporary senator pending the special election. But in a ballot initiative the same year, voters said the governor should not have that much power and voted to get by with no temporary replacement.

The state has yet to resolve the conflict. Were Palin — or her successor, Republican Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell, if she becomes vice president — to insist on appointing a replacement, the state Supreme Court would first have to sort everything out.

Chuck Todd and Pete Williams of NBC News and Jason Lamb, Jason Moore, Rebecca Palsha and Mike Ross of NBC affiliate KTUU of Anchorage, Alaska, contributed to this report.

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