Benson campaign: Stevens indictment is moving voters her way in House race

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska – If only one English sentence can hint at all the distress felt in Republican circles over the prosecution of Sen. Ted Stevens, it would look something like this: The longest-serving GOP senator in American history has been indicted for concealing a quarter of a million dollars in gifts from an oil and gas company at a time when average Americans are outraged over prices at the pump, oil companies are turning record profits and the national economy is in distress.

But that sentence wouldn’t even be mentioning that Stevens is the most prolific earmarker in American history at a time when earmarks, fairly or not, are associated with corruption in Congress.

Nor would it add that at the time of the indictment, Republican candidates in the November elections are reeling in a perfect storm of political disaffection over the war in Iraq, the sputtering economy, and a biblical plague of scandals that began with criminal lobbying impresario Jack Abramoff and his ringleader, Speaker of the House Tom DeLay; spread from there to Randall “Duke” Cunningham and bribery, to Mark Foley and young male congressional pages, to Larry Craig in an airport men’s room, to Pete Domenici and fired U.S. attorneys, to David Vitter and prostitutes, and now finally to Stevens ...

To paraphrase a commentator from the 2006 election cycle, when Republicans lost control of the House of Representatives and the Senate – what next, locusts?

Diane Benson, an Alaska Native candidate in a race to unseat Rep. Don Young in the House of Representatives, finds voters gravitating her way in the wake of Stevens’ woes. The message is that if the indictment was a sad day for Alaska, as the Benson campaign makes a point of saying, it was borderline tragic for Republicans.

For Democrats moved that much closer to obtaining a filibuster-proof majority of 60 seats in the Senate, to go with an assured working majority in the House. For Republicans, the news has gotten so grim that Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. and chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, has begun urging GOP candidates not to attend the party’s September convention in Minneapolis, characterizing it as a waste of time that will cut into essential hours and days on the campaign trail.

Stevens, R-Alaska, has pleaded not guilty and pledged to continue campaigning for his seventh term in office. The task before him is to prove that in filing Senate financial reporting forms, he did not knowingly conceal a connection between the work of VECO Corp. at his Alaska residence and the growth of that residence, both outward (a wraparound deck) and upward (a new story). The seven felony counts against him are the result of an FBI investigation and federal grand jury proceedings, but they do not include bribery – the bestowal of political favors in return for gifts of value.

Attorneys in past cases of alleged public corruption give him an even chance of beating the charges, in part because the Senate financial disclosure forms are renowned bafflers and in part because Stevens reportedly paid for some of the VECO work but not all of it. If he can win the Republican primary Aug. 26, and then beat the felony charges in a fast-track trial before the November at-large elections – so goes one school of well-paid political analysis – he has a good chance of getting enough of a “sympathy vote” to stand off popular Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, a Democrat in a Republican stronghold state.

But in Alaska, the FBI operation that ensnared Stevens has led to the conviction of three in-state lawmakers. And now, in an unrelated case, the rising Republican star in the state, Gov. Sarah Palin, is in the crosshairs of an independent investigator over abuse-of-office allegations.

In the current atmosphere, explained Phillip Allen, communications director for the Benson congressional campaign, “People don’t need
professional politicians in Washington, they need representatives. ... Alaskans are ready for a candidate who will represent them rather than special interests.”

Enter Benson, Tlingit on her mother’s side, Norwegian on her father’s, and Alaskan through and through after years in Sitka and lots of time in the “bush” or remote interior regions of the state, where many Alaska Native villages are located. Allen said her grasp of Alaska Native issues is thoroughgoing, based on familiarity.

She trails Ethan Berkowitz in polling for the Democratic primary that will determine who runs against Young for Alaska’s at-large seat in the U.S. House. But Young, whom Allen describes as a good man corrupted by the Washington political system, trails Berkowitz in the polls; and both are professional politicians of long standing, Berkowitz in the state since 1996 and Young for more than 30 years in the House. By contrast, Benson is a relative political newcomer.

And with the Stevens indictment moving winds of change even in go-it-alone Alaska, reports the Christian Science Monitor, the Benson campaign sees movement her way.

“We’ve gotten nothing but positive feedback,” Allen said. “The more Diane gets out to meet people, to talk with just people, the more she gets encouraged and the more her campaign gets encouraged.”

She knows what it’s like to make ends meet in the bush, he added, where people are now paying $9 a gallon for milk and $11 for gas.

“She’ll never forget where she came from,” Allen said. “We shouldn’t wait to address these issues when they come to the cities. We should address them when we begin to see them in the villages.”

It’s a priority she believes both Stevens and Young have lost track of in Washington.