What Stevens’ Indictment Means for Obama (and Democrats)

Ted Stevens, the beleaguered 85-year-old Republican Senator from Alaska, has been indicted on seven counts of making false statements, according to news reports. A Justice Department press conference is set to begin in a few minutes.

This obviously complicates his re-election bid, which has been on shaky ground since his home was raided by the F.B.I. and the I.R.S. a year ago–part of an ongoing investigation into Stevens’ ties to an oil executive who has been implicated in bribing several Alaska politicians. Stevens is facing a challenge from Mark Begich, the former mayor of Anchorage, who has pulled ahead in some recent polls–a rare feat for a Democrat in one of the reddest states in the country.

Stevens will not have to drop out of the race just because he’s indicted, but it’s difficult to see a path to victory for him given this latest development. It would surely be best for Republicans if he were to exit, the sooner the better. One parallel here is New Jersey in 2002–a blue state where Republicans built a stunning 20-point lead over Democrat Bob Torricelli, thanks to the Torch’s legal woes. As soon as Torricelli quit (just five weeks before the election) and was replaced by Frank Lautenberg, the G.O.P lead vanished and–as they always do in New Jersey–the Democrats coasted to a comfortable Senate win.

But it might not play out that way for the G.O.P. in Alaska. For one thing, there really isn’t a Lautenberg– well-known and largely inoffensive–standing by. But the bigger problem is that corruption among the state’s ruling Republican class has emerged as a major issue in Alaska in the past few years.

In 2006, Frank Murkowski, then the governor and before that, a longtime Senator, finished a humiliating third in the G.O.P. gubernatorial primary, defeated by Sarah Palin, who went on to claim the governorship in the fall. One of Murkowski’s sins was, in his first act as governor in 2003, appointing his daughter, Lisa, to replace him in the Senate–a circumstance that nearly destroyed her when she faced the voters in 2004. And the state’s lone congressman, Republican Don Young, has also caught the feds’ attention and now faces a stiff G.O.P. primary challenge from Republican Lieutenant Governor Sean Parnell. And now Palin herself, who won in ’06 as a symbol of clean government and who has been touted as a potential Republican V.P. pick, now faces an investigation into whether she abused her power by firing her public safety commissioner – who, allegedly, refused to carry out the governor’s order to fire a state trooper who was involved in a messy divorce with the governor’s sister.

This climate may help explain why Barack Obama has kept the presidential race close – within a few points in most polls – in Alaska. And it suggests that voters may not be so quick to embrace any old (non-Stevens) Republican in this fall’s Senate race.