Can Democrats Capitalize on Alaska G.O.P. Mess?

On the surface, the news that the F.B.I. and I.R.S. raided Senator Ted Stevens’ Alaska home yesterday is great news for Democrats.

Stevens, who turns 84 later this year, is planning to seek a seventh Senate term in 2008, and until recently he was considered a shoo-in in what is a deeply Republican state. But the federal investigation – which is part of a larger scandal that threatens several prominent Alaska politicians, including the state’s Republican Congressman-at-large, Don Young – introduces the possibility of a competitive Senate race in a state Democrats previously had little hope in.

But Democrats should view the unfolding scandal with caution, because they’ve been down this road in Alaska before.

Last year, Republican Governor Frank Murkowski, a former Senator and a giant in state politics, opted to seek re-election even as he was hounded by serious questions about his own ethics. Smelling an opening, Democrats recruited Tony Knowles, the last Democrat to win a statewide race in Alaska (for Governor, in 1998), to enter the race. Polls showed Knowles winning in a rout.

But then the GOP wised up. Rather than sticking with Murkowski and his electoral poison, they turned to a newcomer named Sarah Palin, who had been the mayor of Wasilla. Her main claim to fame was the slew of ethics charges she’d filed against Republican politicians, which had made her a gadfly in the party – until 2006, when suddenly the GOP realized that wrapping itself in her crusading could save them from the taint of Murkowski.

Palin won last summer’s three-way GOP gubernatorial primary with 51 percent. Murkowski finished a shocking third, with just 19 percent (perhaps the all-time low for an incumbent in a statewide primary). In the fall, she coasted past Knowles by nearly 10 points.

So while Democrats are now licking their chops at the prospect of ethics-based assaults on Senator Stevens (and Congressman Young, who may actually be more vulnerable) next year, they might not end up facing either in the general election. Already the conservative Club for Growth is casting about for GOP primary challengers to both incumbents, enraged by their ardent support for the infamous $23 million “bridge to nowhere” a few years back. Specifically, former Lieutenant Governor Loren Leman and former state Senate President Mike Miller are on the Club’s wish list.

The weaker Stevens and Young look in upcoming general election polls, the more likely it is that they will face serious primary challenges. The Alaska GOP proved last year that they know how to hold onto power even when they probably don’t deserve to.