ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Sen. Ted Stevens, the longest serving Republican in Senate history, narrowly lost his re-election bid Tuesday, marking the downfall of a Washington political power and Alaska icon who couldn’t survive a conviction on federal corruption charges. His defeat by Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich moves Senate Democrats within two seats of a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority.
Stevens’ ouster on his 85th birthday marks an abrupt realignment in Alaska politics and will alter the power structure in the Senate, where he has served since the days of the Johnson administration while holding seats on some of the most influential committees in Congress.
Tuesday’s tally of just over 24,000 absentee and other ballots gave Begich 150,728, or 47.76 percent, to 147,004, or 46.58 percent, for Stevens. There are about 2,500 overseas ballots yet to be counted.
A recount is possible. If the vote differential between the two candidates is more than 0.5 percent, either side can seek a recount if it posts a bond of about $15,000 to pay for a new tally.
Begich said the defining issue in the race was the desire for a new direction in Washington, not Stevens’ legal problems.
Alaska voters “wanted to see change,” he told reporters in Anchorage. “Alaska has been in the midst of a generational shift – you could see it.”
Stevens’ campaign didn’t immediately respond to phone calls seeking comment.
Stevens’ loss was another slap for Republicans in a year that has seen the party lose control of the White House, as well as seats in the House and Senate. It also moves Democrats one step closer to the 60 votes needed to overcome filibusters in the Senate and gives President-elect Barack Obama a stronger hand when he assumes office on Jan. 20.
Democrats now hold 58 seats, when two independents who align with Democrats are included, with undecided races in Minnesota and Georgia where two Republicans are trying to hang onto their seats.
The climactic count came after a series of tumultuous days for a senator who has been straddling challenges to his power both at home and in his trial in Washington.
Notwithstanding all that turmoil, Stevens revealed Tuesday that he will not ask President George W. Bush to give him a pardon for his seven felony convictions.
Last month just days before the election, Stevens was convicted by a federal jury in Washington of lying on Senate disclosure forms to conceal more than $250,000 in gifts and home renovations from an oil field services company.
His defeat could also allow Republican senators to sidestep the task of determining whether to kick out the longest serving member of their party in the Senate.