by Philip Gourevitch
Last Tuesday morning—a week before Election Day—John McCain called on Senator Ted Stevens, of Alaska, the longest-serving Republican in Congress, to step down. The day before, a jury in Washington, D.C., had found Stevens guilty on seven counts of lying on his financial-disclosure forms in order to conceal gifts that he had received from oil-industry executives: a sled dog, a gas barbecue grill, an electronic massage chair, the addition of a new story to his house—in all, more than a quarter million dollars’ worth of booty. Stevens, who is eighty-four, was seeking a seventh term in the Senate, and now, after a five-week trial that had kept him in Washington throughout the campaign season, he was a convicted felon. For McCain, who had never much liked him, denouncing and renouncing Stevens was an obvious political move.
But McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, was more circumspect. She greeted Stevens’s conviction with a statement in which she proclaimed herself a fighter against corruption but avoided taking a stand on the case. She said only, “I’m confident Senator Stevens will do what is right for the people of Alaska.” Pressed to clarify what that right thing would be, Palin eventually took a line more consistent with McCain’s, saying, “The time has come for him to step aside.” But she was careful not to hurry him out the door. “Even if elected on Tuesday,” she went on, “Senator Stevens should step aside to allow a special election to give Alaskans a real choice of who will serve them in Congress.”
In late summer, when Stevens was facing trial, and Palin had not yet been tapped by McCain, there was speculation in Alaska that she might maneuver to replace Stevens on the senatorial ballot. Now, in the last week of the campaign, with a Barack Obama victory looking increasingly likely, Alaskan politicos parsed her second statement on Stevens. “If she returns to Alaska, Palin could pursue appointing herself,” Tony Hopfinger, an editor of the blog AlaskaDispatch, wrote. “Another scenario would be Palin filling Stevens’ post with a Republican seat-warmer, then running for senator in the special election.” Dermot Cole, a columnist for the pro-Stevens Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, said, “I think that was a carefully planned statement, and it differed from what McConnell”—Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader—“and others are saying: that he should resign immediately. I think some elements in the Republican Party are thinking that way, urging him to stay in to keep the seat Republican—it’s not a very resounding endorsement.”
“If Stevens wins but the Senate takes action against him, what happens next?” Beth Kerttula, a Democratic state representative, who serves as the House minority leader in the legislature in Juneau, said. “Even in the grocery store tonight I heard somebody say, ‘Well, what if she quit and her lieutenant governor appointed her?’ We’re wondering.”
Throughout the fall, even though he was in court, Stevens enjoyed the devotion of his constituency and ran in a dead heat with his Democratic challenger, Mark Begich, the mayor of Anchorage. But the guilty verdict hurt him, giving Begich as much as an eight-point lead.
Before Palin left to run for Vice-President, her successes in the legislature depended on working with Democrats, but her hyper-partisanship in the national campaign has damaged those relationships. In her absence, a state investigation found that she had violated state ethics laws and abused her power as governor in the firing of the state-police chief after he refused to help her carry out a personal vendetta. In addition, a new ethics complaint has been filed against her, for billing taxpayers for her daughters’ travel expenses. “All of these things she has to come back and answer for if she loses this election,” Begich said. “And she won’t be able to hide from the press here: they’ve been waiting.” To hear him talk, a return to Alaska would be as much an exile for Palin as a homecoming—a “long, dark” winter, he said, “and maybe a little chilly.”
“She seems to be one of those people who always stay one step ahead of the axe,” Beth Kerttula said. Of course, Ted Stevens always seemed like one of those people, too. So, just as Palin declared herself “cleared of any legal wrongdoing” when the Troopergate report found her to have violated state laws, Stevens returned to Alaska following his conviction—some of his supporters greeted him in T-shirts bearing the slogan “F*#@ the Feds Vote for Ted!”—and said, “I have not been convicted of anything.”.