Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens lost his job to Mark Begich on Tuesday, putting an end to the era of “Uncle Ted” as the dominant force in Alaska politics.
Begich, the Democratic mayor of Anchorage, widened his lead to 3,724 votes in Tuesday’s count of absentee and questioned ballots. The lead is insurmountable, as the only votes left to count are approximately 2,500 ballots from overseas.
Begich claimed victory, saying, “I am humbled and honored to serve Alaska in the U.S. Senate.”
The loss came on Stevens’ 85th birthday. The 40-year incumbent is the longest serving Republican in the history of the U.S. Senate.
Stevens could ask for a recount but his campaign would have to pay for it. The state pays if the margin is within .5 percent of the total votes cast. But Begich leads by just over 1 percent with more than 315,000 votes cast in the race.
Begich said it would be pointless for Stevens to request a recount. Since the state moved to mostly machine counting, recent Alaska recounts have resulted in little change in the final tally.
Begich said Tuesday evening that Stevens, who was in Washington, D.C., had not called him to concede the race or offer congratulations. “It’s 9:30 D.C. time, so we might not hear tonight, maybe tomorrow,” Begich said.
The Stevens campaign did not respond to requests for comment after the senator’s defeat was clear.
Earlier in the day, a sea of reporters surrounded Stevens, with dozens of cameras and microphones pointed at him, as he walked a hallway on Capitol Hill.
Stevens said the past several months — beginning with his indictment in June, his trial this fall, and his abbreviated re-election campaign — have been hard on him.
“I haven’t had a night’s sleep for almost four months,” he said.
“I’ve been living about three different lives, and it’s hard to even answer your questions properly,” Stevens said, adding, “I wouldn’t wish what I’ve been through on anyone, (even) my worst enemy.”
A Washington, D.C., jury convicted Stevens of seven felonies for lying on his financial disclosure forms about more than $250,000 in gifts, including renovations of his Girdwood home. The gifts came from Bill Allen, chief of the oilfield services company Veco Corp. and the man at the center of corruption in Alaska politics.
Stevens denies wrongdoing and is appealing the verdict. His Senate Republican colleagues were considering stripping him of his committee assignments but decided Tuesday to hold off and wait for the election returns before acting.
Republican Party of Alaska Chairman Randy Ruedrich blamed Stevens’ loss on the timing of the trial. It ended just a week before the election, giving Stevens little time to campaign.
“The Stevens campaign had very little time to get out the message of what happened in the trial,” he said.
Stevens claimed he was railroaded. He alleged prosecutorial misconduct so gross that legal scholars would study the case for years to come. After the jury’s decision, he asserted he had not been convicted, relying on a legal definition that defied common usage of the term.
Begich said he’d wished Stevens had spent more time campaigning in Alaska as well.
“Because I think what people would have seen, was the Ted Stevens of today, which is much different than the Ted Stevens that people have memories of,” Begich said. “I think we would have seen that he has lost touch with Alaskans, that he had no real long-term future plans for our state or this country.”
Stevens’ run in the U.S. Senate started not long after statehood, when Gov. Wally Hickel appointed him to the Senate in 1968. Stevens has never had a close election in the four decades since, often drawing just token opposition.
Stevens steered billions of dollars to Alaska and had a hand in most of the major federal legislation that’s shaped Alaska. He was honored as “Alaskan of the Century” and the state Legislature named the Anchorage airport after him.
His luster began to fade after the FBI and IRS raided his Girdwood home last year. But Stevens still came within about a percentage point of being the first person ever elected to the U.S. Senate after being found guilty of felony crime.
Stevens led by more than 3,000 votes after Election Day on Nov. 4, before absentee ballots turned the tide in Begich’s favor. Begich made a big push for his supporters to vote absentee to avoid the potential they wouldn’t get around to it Election Day.
Stevens had overwhelming voter support in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and the Kenai Peninsula. But Begich trounced Stevens throughout rural Alaska, long a Stevens stronghold, as well as in Southeast Alaska.
In his hometown of Anchorage, Begich ended up with 49.3 percent of the vote compared to 46.5 percent for Stevens. Begich also narrowly wonFairbanks.
Several U.S. senators called Begich on Tuesday night to congratulate him on his victory. They included Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada.
“They’re excited. I said, I’ve got to figure out when I can get back there, and they said, whatever you need, whatever orientation you need or time with staff or whatever, we’re here to help you,” Begich said.
The Begich name is not new to Congress. Begich’s father, Nick, was Alaska’s representative in the U.S. House before he vanished in 1972 on a flight between Anchorage and Juneau.
Begich is the first Democrat to represent Alaska in the U.S. Senate since Mike Gravel nearly 30 years ago. His victory also puts the Democrats one step closer to their ambition of having the 60 seats needed for a filibuster-proof majority in the U.S. Senate. To get 60 seats, the Democrats would also need Al Franken to beat Republican Sen. Norm Coleman in a Minnesota recount, and for Jim Martin to beat Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss in a Georgia runoff election.
Daily News reporter Erika Bolstad contributed to this story from Washington, D.C. Find Sean Cockerham online at adn.com/contact/scockerham