WASHINGTON — Ted Stevens is hardly a household name outside Alaska, yet the indictment of the veteran senator Tuesday could be another blow to Republicans' chances of success in legislative races around the country this fall.
"It reflects poorly on Congress nationally and it reflects poorly on the Republican Party," said Ted Birkland, who grew up in Anchorage and is a professor of public policy at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh.
He and other analysts think that Stevens, who's been indicted on seven federal corruption charges, is likely to become another symbol of all that voters find wrong with the Republican Party.
"It already looked likely to be a bad year for Republicans. This reinforces the impression that the party has a lot of problems and a lot of dirty laundry," said Thomas De Luca, a professor of political science at Fordham University, in New York.
The indictment is unlikely to have a significant impact on the presidential race. Republican John McCain is noted for his high-profile opposition to congressional "earmarks" — the practice of funding local projects in legislation without the usual procedural review, which Stevens specializes in — so he's somewhat insulated from association with the Alaska senator.
Alaska's three electoral votes could be in play, however, as the state's Republican hierarchy has been hit badly by political corruption — as Stevens' indictment again underscores — and Democrat Barack Obama has opened campaign offices there, the first Democratic presidential contender to do so in years. Still, Alaska has voted Republican for president since 1968, and most analysts expect it to do so again this year.
As for the impact of Stevens' indictment on congressional races, of 35 Senate seats at stake this year, Republicans now hold 23, and this month's respected Cook Political Report found only 11 of them safe for the party. It rated six as tossups, including Stevens' seat. Cook rated 10 of the 12 Democratic seats as safe to stay so, with the other two likely or leaning Democratic.
Stevens already faced a tough re-election fight; a recent Rasmussen poll had Democratic Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich up by 8 to 9 points, while a Research 2000 survey showed Begich ahead by 2 points. The indictments thus could sink Stevens, who's served in the Senate since 1968.
In Washington, Republicans were grim Tuesday as news of the indictment spread. Party Chairman Robert "Mike" Duncan tried to minimize the damage, calling the indictment "a blip along the way."
"This presidential campaign will not be about the senior senator from Alaska," he said. "It's going to be about energy, about tax policy. It's going to be about the future of America."
But the somber looks on Republican senators' faces as they emerged from an election strategy session told a different story. No one wanted to talk.
"We all decided to say, 'No comment,' '' said Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah.
The Cook Political Report's Senate assessment: http://cookpolitical.com/charts/senate/raceratings_2008-07-17_16-06-42.php
The Rasmussen Alaska Senate poll: http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/election_20082/2008_senate_elections/alaska/election_2008_alaska_senate
The Research 2000 Alaska polls: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2008/7/18/05546/5743/983/553284