Sen. Ted Stevens’ push for a quick verdict in his corruption trial backfired catastrophically Monday, putting the 40-year Senate veteran on track for expulsion — if Alaska’s voters don’t toss him out of office first.
The Constitution stipulates that the Senate can expel members with a two-thirds vote — but none of the four members convicted of crimes since 1905 braved public humiliation at the hands of their colleagues. Three resigned in disgrace — the last one was New Jersey Republican Sen. Harrison Williams in 1982 — and one died before he could be booted out.
The people of Alaska may spare Stevens from such a decision. Even before jurors convicted him on seven felony counts Monday, Stevens was running neck and neck with his Democratic challenger, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich. Unless voters rally hard around their beleaguered “Uncle Ted,” his conviction should send his poll numbers plummeting.
Stevens was whisked from the federal courthouse in Washington on Monday without addressing the reporters who were waiting for him outside. Hours later, he issued a statement in which he proclaimed his innocence, railed against “prosecutorial misconduct,” said he planned to stand for reelection next Tuesday and asked Alaskans and his Senate colleagues to stand with him.
At least two did: Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), a stalwart Stevens friend who testified on his behalf at trial.
“Ted has asked for Alaskans and his Senate colleagues to stand with him as he pursues his legal rights,” Murkowski said in a statement issued Monday night. “He stood with Alaskans for 40 years, and I plan to continue to stand with him.”
Inouye said in a statement that he was “deeply saddened by the jury’s decision to find Sen. Ted Stevens guilty of the charges. However, this may not be the final decision, as this matter is subject to appeal. I hope the people of Alaska continue to believe in Ted Stevens, to remember his contributions and to look upon him as a friend.”
But the political verdict from others was much harsher.
Nevada Sen. John Ensign, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, referred to the jury’s decision as the end of Stevens’ career. “I am disappointed to see his career end in disgrace,” he said in a statement. “Sen. Stevens had his day in court, and the jury found he violated the public’s trust — as a result, he is properly being held accountable. This is a reminder that no one is above the law.”
In a statement issued just before Stevens vowed to fight, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin seemed to prod her onetime ally to step aside, calling on the 84-year-old Stevens to “do what’s right for the people of Alaska.”
Alaska State Democratic Chairwoman Patti Higgins called on Stevens to “resign immediately” and predicted a backlash against him if he doesn’t.
“I think Alaskans are very disgusted,” she said. “I think for a long time they didn’t want to believe it was true, but now they are forced to accept it. ... It’s a very sad day for us; a lot of us had respect for Sen. Stevens.”
Begich didn’t go quite that far, releasing a brief statement calling Alaskans “strong and resilient” and predicting that they would be able to “move forward together.”
Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution, was less cryptic. “I do think it is the end of Stevens’ career,” he said. “With the verdict in, I think it would be too embarrassing to the Alaska public to reelect him ... given there is a good chance the Senate would subsequently vote to evict him. ... I cannot imagine the Senate not taking action to remove him.”
Stevens’ conviction provides Democrats with a major momentum boost in their push to capture a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority in the Senate. And Democratic candidates from Mississippi to Minnesota wasted little time in trying to Krazy Glue Stevens to their GOP opponents.
Kentucky Democrat Bruce Lunsford, who is locked in a tight race against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, put out a statement reminding voters that the leader had lauded Stevens’ “noble service to state and country” during a speech in 2007. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) also praised Stevens at the time, calling him “my friend.”
“The conviction of Stevens is yet another example of the culture of corruption in Washington that Mitch McConnell proudly protects,” a Lunsford spokesman said. “This time, it is McConnell’s mentor who is caught red-handed.”
In North Carolina, Democratic state Sen. Kay Hagan called on Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) to return all the money that she’s ever received from Stevens and also to speak out against any presidential pardon of Stevens. Dole has already returned $10,000 of the $21,000 in campaign contributions from Stevens after he was indicted.
Democrat Jeff Merkley, running against Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), also tried to score some points. Merkley called on Smith to return the $29,000 he received from Stevens during the 1996 and 2002 campaign cycles. Like Dole, Smith previously returned $10,000 of Stevens’ money from this election cycle.
Former Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, a Democrat, was the first to react to the Stevens verdict. Musgrove, who is facing scrutiny over tainted contributions in his own campaign against Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), called the Stevens conviction another example of corruption in Washington.
Even Palin — who called the verdict a “sad day for Alaska” — took her shots.
“The verdict shines a light on the corrupting influence of the big oil service company that was allowed to control too much of our state,” she said in her statement. “It was part of the culture of corruption I was elected to fight. And that fight must always move forward regardless of party or seniority or past service.”
Even if Stevens resigns, his name will appear on next Tuesday’s ballot. If he somehow manages to win after quitting — or if he wins and is then expelled — the state would conduct a special election within 90 days, according to Alaska election law. Unlike most states, Alaska does not allow the governor — in this case, Palin — to name a long-term Senate replacement, but she could name an interim senator, pending the special election. And an Alaska state election official said that Palin would be eligible to run in such a special election if she chose to do so.
Josh Kraushaar and Amie Parnes contributed to this story.