Indictment burdens GOP ahead of contests
WASHINGTON » Just when it looked like things couldn't get much worse for Republicans in this election year, they did.
The indictment yesterday of Ted Stevens of Alaska, the party's longest-serving senator, gave Democrats a new edge in their drive to win his seat and more momentum in their push to capture a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority in the Senate.
It was the latest bad news in a year of setbacks for Republican candidates across the country. The party has been buffeted by retirements and surprise defeats in districts they thought were safe.
Republicans are playing defense in far more House and Senate races than the majority Democrats. And they're hobbled by large financial disadvantages in a punishing re-election climate.
That's on top of a miniwave of scandals that have embarrassed -- if not discredited -- the party at a critical time, including the link of Sen. David Vitter, R-La., to an escort service and the guilty plea of Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, to charges stemming from a gay sex sting in an airport men's room.
"We've had nothing but challenges all the way through, so what else is new?" said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
What's new is that the 84-year-old Stevens, who had already been facing a crowded primary and a tough re-election fight, is now running under indictment. He was accused yesterday of lying on Senate disclosure reports to conceal more than $250,000 in home renovations and gifts from an Alaska oil contractor that lobbied him for government aid.
Hawaii's senior senator said yesterday he believes in longtime friend and colleague Sen. Ted Stevens after the Alaska Republican was indicted.
"In our legal system, a man is presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. That is fundamental in our democracy," Sen. Dan Inouye, a Democrat, said in a statement released by his office yesterday.
"As far as I am concerned, Ted Stevens remains my friend. I believe in him," Inouye said.
Stevens had been expected to win his six-way primary on Aug. 26, and then go on to face a steep challenge from Mark Begich, the Democratic mayor of Anchorage.
He said yesterday he was innocent of the criminal charges, but he was mum about his re-election plans. But whatever happens, the indictment may have further weakened Republicans' hold on his seat in a state that has long been a GOP stronghold.
If Stevens presses ahead, he'll be running as a tainted candidate -- albeit one who's beloved in Alaska for using his position to bring home decades' worth of goodies. If he steps aside, one of his five GOP primary challengers -- all much lesser known -- would likely go on to face Begich, the son of the late Democratic Rep. Nick Begich, who has strong name recognition in the state.
Some Republican strategists said they doubted Stevens' troubles would have a national impact on their party.
"He's legend in Alaska and a legend in the halls of Congress, but in between, he's not really that well known," said John Feehery, a former House GOP leadership aide. "This will further the cynicism toward Congress as a whole."