Stevens meltdown

Acting on a hunch last December, I commissioned a nonpartisan Research 2000 poll of the 2008 Alaska Senate race. Although Daily Kos had ordered a number of polls of 2008 races, the Alaska survey appeared even to me to be a bit of a stretch. It tested Sen. Ted Stevens (R) — an incumbent so entrenched that he was named “Alaskan of the 20th Century” — against Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich (D), who, while popular, was at the time publicly expressing little interest in the race.

The results were shocking. While I had intuited a competitive race, there was little objective evidence to suggest that the numbers would look so good for Democrats — yet Begich led the legendary Stevens, 47-41. Adding gravy to those results, Democrat Ethan Berkowitz led 49-42 against the equally legendary Rep. Don Young (R) for the state’s sole U.S. House seat.

Although the reaction to the poll in some quarters was one of sneering, Stevens’s pollster Dave Dittman confirmed the results. “It’s interesting and it’s early but I wasn’t shocked,” Dittman admitted with surprising candor. “Both Congressman Young and Sen. Stevens have been under attack, [or] at least the subject of a lot of negative information and news stories and things for almost two years. I would think it’s got to have an effect.”

While the Stevens campaign likely wished Dittman had shut his mouth, other polls soon confirmed the early Research 2000 survey. Dittman was right. “Negative information” — the glut of news stories exposing the long-running criminal investigations into the state’s corrupt Republican Party — was killing Stevens’s and Young’s reelection numbers.

Last week, the information got even worse for Stevens, as federal prosecutors announced a dramatic seven-count indictment against him for concealing bribes from VECO Corp., an oil-field service company. And the indictments didn’t boost just Begich — they imbued Stevens’s multiple primary challengers with renewed purpose and attention.

Alaska’s late primary could give the GOP a last chance to run a clean candidate, but the unknown challengers in the race have gained little traction. A post-indictment poll revealed a 40-point Stevens lead over his closest rival, and a field crowded with six opponents means the reform vote will be fractured. Stevens may not win by 40 percent, but he should survive, at worst, with a plurality of the vote.

Republicans still have a small post-primary window to find a new candidate, if they can prevail on Stevens to withdraw. Per state law, Stevens can exit the race and have his name replaced by his party until Sept. 17. But as much as party leaders might dream of such a scenario, it currently appears unlikely.

The corruption probes have decimated the GOP bench. Their lone star, reformer Gov. Sarah Palin, is facing her own corruption investigations. Once the subject of trendy vice presidential rumors and approval ratings over 90 percent, Palin is bleeding support and looks increasingly damaged. It was no surprise when she unequivocally disclaimed interest in Stevens’s Senate seat. And beyond Palin, Republicans have no one to match Begich’s stature.

For his part, Stevens has strongly maintained his innocence, and isn’t acting like a man ready to relinquish power. He’s been granted what appears to be an expedited trial in a move that seems a calculated risk — jury selection won’t begin until Sept. 24, after the ballot replacement deadline. And the case is docketed in Washington, forcing Stevens off the campaign trail at a critical juncture in the campaign. Clearly, he’s hoping for an electoral boost if declared innocent.

If convicted? Well, he can’t do any worse than he’s doing today.

Moulitsas is founder and publisher of Daily Kos .