Just as Sen. Ted Stevens appeared set to return to Congress, felony conviction and all, his re-election bid has faltered. If he loses, it also closes a possible door into the Senate anytime soon for Gov. Sarah Palin.
As counting of early and absentee ballots continued in Stevens' race against Democrat Mark Begich, the contest for Alaska's only House seat was settled Wednesday, with the re-election of Republican incumbent Don Young for his 19th term.
In the Stevens race, Begich jumped to an 814-vote lead, after trailing by 3,200 when the day began. The tally late Wednesday was 132,196 to 131,382, with an estimated 30,000 ballots remaining to be counted, some on Friday and some next week.
"After watching the votes today, I remain cautiously optimistic," Begich, a two-term Anchorage mayor, said in a news release. "We ran an aggressive campaign, especially when it came to early voting and absentee."
Stevens' campaign did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Convicted by jury last month
Last month, a federal jury in Washington convicted Stevens of lying on Senate disclosure forms to conceal more than $250,000 in gifts and home renovations from an oil field services company.
That might have spelled quick political doom for a lesser figure, but Stevens is revered here for his decades of public service — and especially for scoring the state enormous sums of federal money.
Begich would be the first Democrat to win a Senate race in Alaska since the mid-1970s, and a victory would put his party one step closer to a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority in the Senate. Democrats are also trying to unseat Republicans in unresolved contests in Georgia and Minnesota.
Fellow senators have called on Stevens to resign if he wins, and he could face expulsion if he declines to step down. In either case a special election would be held to determine his replacement. Palin, fresh from her failed run at the vice presidency, said Wednesday she'd be interested in serving in the Senate.
"My life is in God's hands," Palin said. "If he's got doors open for me, that I believe are in our state's best interest, the nation's best interest, I'm going to go through those doors."
In the House race, The Associated Press declared Young the winner with 50 percent of the vote compared with Democrat Ethan Berkowitz's 45 percent.
Berkowitz campaign spokesman David Shurtleff said the Democrat was not ready to concede, although he acknowledged dim prospects.
Election officials Wednesday counted 57,000 of the estimated 90,000 outstanding ballots, which include absentee, early, questioned and provisional ballots.
Recount is possible
Should the Senate results remain close a recount is possible. In Alaska, the losing candidate or a collection of 10 voters has three days to petition for a recount unless the vote was a tie, in which case it would be automatic.
If the difference between the candidates is within 0.5 percent of the total votes cast, the state pays for the recount, to be started within three days of the recount petition. The state Elections Division has 10 days to complete the recount.
If Stevens holds onto his seat, he might remain in the Senate for some time. As a practical matter, Stevens can't be expelled by the full Senate until after an Ethics Committee investigation and a majority vote of that panel. That won't happen until next year at the earliest.
Stevens also plans to appeal his conviction after he's sentenced, in February at the earliest. The appeal could take months or years.
President George W. Bush could also pardon him.