Begich’s entry tees up first tough reelection race in Stevens's career

National Democrats have their man against Sen. Ted Stevens, and he appears set to give the party its first real shot at the senator in his 40-year career.

Anchorage Mayor Mark BegichMark Peter BegichDem Begich concedes Alaska governor race to Republican Dunleavy Democrats gain governorships in red states GOP braces for potential wipeout in governors' races MORE announced Wednesday that he is entering the race against Stevens (R-Alaska), setting up an exploratory committee and ending months of speculation about whether Democrats could field a formidable candidate against the embattled lawmaker.

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A federal investigation into Stevens’s ties to the Veco Corp. pushed the seat into the realm of possibility for Democrats. Begich’s entry makes it an official race.

In launching his committee, Begich said in an e-mail to supporters that the exploratory committee is a significant step forward that he doesn’t take lightly.

“This exploratory committee gives me the opportunity to talk with Alaskans within the provisions of federal election laws,” he said. “After hearing from Alaskans across the state, I will make a final decision on becoming an official candidate well before the June 1 filing deadline.”

A competitive race in Alaska would add another to the growing list of takeover opportunities in unexpected places for national Democrats.

The recent entry of other top recruits in open-seat races in Mississippi and Nebraska could also expand the field for a party that seems to have nearly everything working in its favor so far this cycle, including the electoral map, money and GOP retirements.

Begich’s announcement, which comes just six days after Stevens filed to run for a seventh full term, helps put to rest questions about whether the 84-year-old would retire amid his legal problems.

Authorities are investigating a remodeling job done on Stevens’s home by Veco Corp., whose former executive has confessed to bribing Stevens’s son, former state Sen. Ben Stevens. The elder Stevens’s home was raided last summer, and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) is also being targeted in the probe.

Stevens told the Anchorage Daily News upon filing last week that this “is going to be a really strong race” and that lots of bloggers and Senate colleagues would be gunning for him.

The senator and World War II veteran won 60 percent of the vote in his first race in 1970 and has never taken less than 66 percent since then.

“We need a senator who will stand up for Alaska and fight for what is best for our state,” Stevens said in a statement. “I believe I have a strong record of listening to Alaskans and working to do what Alaskans want.”

As a mayor of a distant city who has kept his deliberations quiet, Begich is largely an unknown quantity in Washington. He is the 46-year-old son of a former member of Congress, Rep. Nick Begich (D-Alaska), who disappeared in the 1972 plane crash that also claimed House Majority Leader Hale Boggs (D-La.).

Mark Begich was elected to the Anchorage assembly at 26 and served for a decade, while also making a name for himself in business.

He has not always been an electoral winner — it took him three tries to win election as mayor of Anchorage. After finally winning in 2003, he was easily reelected in 2006 with 56 percent of the vote.

The mayor serves about 40 percent of the state in his current capacity, giving himself a solid base on which to build a statewide campaign.

Begich didn’t speak out against Stevens at his press conference Wednesday morning at his home in Anchorage.

“It’s about running for what Alaskans want to see in their U.S. senator, what change they want to see in Washington, D.C.,” Begich said. “Each candidate will stand on their own, and anyone who enters this race because of issues with Sen. Stevens is entering it for the wrong reason.”

Whatever Stevens’s current vulnerabilities, he remains an institution who continues to deliver millions in pork to a pork-hungry state. He also has the all-important “R” next to his name.

Jennifer Duffy, a Senate race analyst at the Cook Political Report, noted that Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) entered the 2004 Senate race with lots of baggage against former Gov. Tony Knowles (D), but she resolutely ran a campaign good enough to win.

As with the Murkowski-Knowles race, Stevens is trailing Begich in some early polling. A Research 2000 poll commissioned by liberal website DailyKos showed Begich up 47-41 in early December.

“[Murkowski] went out, made the case and proved she worked hard and was qualified for the job,” Duffy said.

She added of Begich: “His biggest problem simply is being a Democrat. … I’m not saying it can’t happen, [especially] in this environment. It’s just hard.”

National Republicans insist Stevens will win another term, but they have already launched a website preparing to level attacks on Begich’s record.

“Mark Begich has an uphill battle in this race, to say the least,” said a spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Rebecca Fisher. “Sen. Stevens is revered by his voters, and we fully expect him to return in November.”

Other candidates on the Democratic side include former state Rep. Ray Metcalfe.

Stevens also faces a primary from developer David Cuddy. The wealthy self-funder spent $1 million and took 27 percent in an open primary against Stevens in 1996, while Stevens took 59 percent and went on to win the general election.