When Ted Stevens was found guilty of all seven charges of failing to report gifts last week, the conventional wisdom, at least in the Lower 48, was that the Republicans had lost another Senate seat.
I’m inclined to agree. But with reservations. Because if there’s any place that will surprise you politically (other than Minnesota, maybe), it would be Alaska.
Alaska politics seems to have a special knack for getting muddy, if not outright weird. Take the ongoing saga of Stevens’s trial, where the weirdness seems to have spread: a juror took a break from deliberations because her father died, except that he didn’t actually die, and she was not answering her phone because she had, in fact, left D.C. for a horse race in California. As the AP notes:
She apologized for lying, and then started a long rambling story about horses, which included references to horse breeding, the Breeders’ Cup, drugs, President Ford’s son Steven and her condo in Florida being bugged.
Fair enough, I suppose. This after Stevens himself gave some head-scratching testimony, such as calling a massage chair from a supporter that sat in his Washington residence for the last seven years a “loan.” (In a kind of contrapuntal twist, Stevens was questioned by a Justice Department prosecutor; fifty years ago, he was himself a U.S. attorney for the Justice Department.) As the Anchorage Daily News reported:
In fact, Stevens said, he planned to ship the chair back to Persons in Alaska with other furniture from Washington to use in [Stevens’s] Girdwood house, but there wasn’t any room in the “chalet” – the place was filled with Allen’s stuff, he said.
Where was his original furniture?
“Bill Allen stole our furniture and put his in our chalet,” Stevens said.
“Why didn’t you call the police?” Morris asked.
“It never crossed my mind to call the police at that time,” Stevens said. “I might now.”
I kind of wish Jay Hammond were around to paddle up in his canoe and tell us what he thought about all this.
Today, the state personnel board cleared Governor Palin of any wrongdoing in Troopergate, meaning both sides get a report stating what they want to hear, and neither will ever be satisfied. But whether Palin becomes vice president or not, Alaska will soon be pried from its cozy niche in the American political system. And that is why I’m writing about Stevens.
Because Stevens’s era, and possibly Don Young’s, is over, or almost. (And it seems to me that Palin can’t go back to her governorship and expect to accomplish much meaningful, having burned so many bridges in this campaign.) That Alaskans would take a gamble and reinstall a convicted felon as senator in the hopes that he will continue to bring home the bacon would not be a shock. But the gamble comes in what the Senate does with Stevens if he gets another term. Alaska is a state normally ignored when it comes to national politics, which helped during earmark time. This year, it’s at the center of the storm with the problems that Stevens, Young, and Palin are having. It’s a make-or-break year for Alaska, in terms of the Washington influence it has quietly built up over decades. They’ve got to go all in.
The Times recently wrote:
Some state Republican Party leaders have countered this concern [over Stevens’s convictions] by urging people to vote for Mr. Stevens as a tactical move. They say re-electing him will allow for a special election to replace him should he later resign or be expelled. Otherwise, Republicans would be ceding the race to Mr. Begich [the Democrat].
A tactical move. Politicians like Young and Stevens seem to have stayed in power because of a go-along-to-get-along mentality. There is no great orator or charmer between those two. But with so much seniority, and with Republicans previously in the majority–or at least not marginalized–during their careers, these politicians were not so much inspirations as investments when it came time to cast a vote.
This was an argument I often heard for voting for the incumbents; they have influence built up (meaning: they can keep the federal funds flowing north). Alaska’s political power in Washington has long rested in its Congressional delegation; Palin is an outlier. But now? If Young and Stevens were to win, they’d be shunted to the sidelines in a Democratic Congress. Young has become an object of national ridicule and derision from all sides–this because of Palin and McCain and his Bridges to Nowhere. Stevens will be roundly considered a disgrace for his convictions. And if Palin should become VP, she shouldn’t expect any favors from the new Congress if she tries to send a few more federal dollars to Alaska. Attempting to do so would run counter to one of her ticket’s primary messages, anyway.
But all may not be lost. FiveThirtyEight lists Stevens’s seat as “safely Dem;” RealClearPolitics notes that Young’s House seat “leans Dem.” Maybe Alaskans will come to believe that “investing” votes in a Democrat or two could bring many rewards to the state as a Democratic White House or Congress or both shower the new guys, and thus Alaska, with influential committee spots and other goodies that will help in 2010 and 2014. Tactical moves all over the place from everybody.
And even if they’re Democrats, they’ll still push to open ANWR.
Stevens is reportedly airing a two-minute commercial explaining his vision for Alaska (or, I suppose, after 40 years, reiterating that vision), among other things, during the six o’clock news across the state. It’s not online yet, and I’m not sure through which of the internet tubes it will hurtle. I’m sure it will be on the YouTube. But it’s not there yet. In the meantime, here’s thirty-one-second commercial, “Sticking with Stevens.”
New Order fans will recognize the opening strains of “Ceremony” playing in the background. Not sure that Senator Stevens is a fan of the post-punk, New Wave genre. But I love it. New Order also has songs called “Temptation,” “Regret,” and “Times Change.”
When I was in high school, an especially talented teacher brought the hammer down on all of us idealistic almost-voters. Our votes for president, she told us, wouldn’t count.
Easy for her to say. And not necessarily wrong. We were living in Alaska, which holds a whopping three electoral votes. And those three electoral votes are reliably Republican, just like the state. She encouraged us to participate, but when it comes to realpolitik, Alaska doesn’t make the difference. No president-elect or vice-president-elect thanks the people of Alaska on election night.
For the last 28 years, Alaska’s delegation to Washington, D.C., has been solidly Republican. The governors have been more mixed—five Republicans, five Democrats since statehood. The tie-breaker would be Wally Hickel, who was governor from 1990 to 1994, under the Alaska Independence Party banner. He breaks the tie in favor of the Republicans–after all, he switched to the party in 1994. Or, rather, switched back to the party–he was also one of those Republican governors, in the 1960s, until he joined the Nixon administration.
By now, you’ve probably heard of at least two of Alaska’s delegation: Don Young and Ted Stevens. They’ve run successfully on anti-change platforms. That is, you should vote for me, because I’ve been in Congress for such a long time that it would be bad for you to get rid of me. This is why Young, for example, didn’t feel to bashful about admitting, about the 2005 transportation bill, “I stuffed it like a turkey.” That bill included earmarks for the famous “bridges to nowhere” (there were two, technically, including the famous one down near Ketchikan), which the Republicans point out now-Governor Sarah Palin opposed. They don’t mention that it was a Republican’s initiative.
But Young is in a political fight to the death at this very moment. (Let’s save a discussion of Stevens for another day.) Palin’s lieutenant governor, Sean Parnell, challenged the 36-year-incumbent in the primary, held Tuesday, and they’re still counting the votes. Young has a lead, but just barely: 151 votes. (I’ll write more about Young in the future. I need a real reporting budget, too–it’s a great story.)
And now Sarah Palin is John McCain’s running mate. A surprise, but hardly a shock since Palin has been mentioned as a possibility (though a long shot). She is probably a good short-term choice for McCain, but debatable in the long term. She is popular in Alaska, but Alaska only has about 670,000 people. While 60 percent of the population is independent or unaffiliated, and another quarter is Republican, it hasn’t proven to be that politically diverse at core when electing statewide or nationally in recent years. Compared to bigger, more diverse states like Texas or California, or even medium-sized states like Pennsylvania or Ohio, it’s kind of like saying she’s popular in high school.*
She ends up undermining much of McCain’s campaign so far, namely the experience argument. Even though the Republicans can point to her executive experience, once the dust settles, it will be clear that she’s only been governor of Alaska for about a year and a half, and her prior experience is limited, potentially negligible. If she’d been an early candidate for president, she would have been severely criticized if not ridiculed for her presumption to the office. And Obama’s people will focus on her glaring weaknesses while pointing out that executive experience is no guarantee–after all, George W. Bush was a two-term governor of Texas, and a two-term president, and how often do we hear anyone singing his praise anymore?
There are a lot of other Republican women who have longer résumés (including active governors and senators), and from that perspective, choosing Palin is particularly surprising. But she brings advantages. One is that she doesn’t really have a record to run from, though that brings a slim record to point to.
But choosing her also has an effect that Karl Rove would be proud of. The Palin selection is Rove’s base strategy at work–appealing to and drawing out the conservative base, which helped re-elect Bush in 2004. Remember George W. Bush’s perhaps unintentional acknowledgment of the strategy after the election, when he pledged to “reach out to everyone who shares our goals.”
Alaska has a strong libertarian streak (with a paradoxical dose of federal entitlement), which helped Palin’s anti-corruption, anti-waste campaign for governor. All state politicians have to balance that libertarianism with their personal conservatism or liberalism, which means it’s often subverted. It’s clear that Palin’s conservatism will be deployed strategically: evangelical, anti-abortion, promotes teaching creationism in school, grew up around hunting and guns,* etc. Just like, say, Mike Huckabee. But choosing Palin more easily qualifies as historic.
So what does Alaska have to do with any of this? Almost nothing, at this point. Energy and global warming are the obvious issues, and it will be interesting to watch Palin attempt to shut down Biden on these points in debate. But Alaska, like Delaware, doesn’t figure into any key electoral equations. My teacher is still right, and this election won’t be won and lost there.
Plus, if Palin goes to Washington along with Sean Parnell, and they stick to their fiscal guns (the Club for Growth loves them), then Alaska actually stands to lose money. Alaska wouldn’t be Alaska without that steady influx of federal cash.
No, it seems that Alaska’s unique role in today’s decision is that it’s a small state that allows people to make big impressions. Where else can a person come, seemingly, out of nowhere, to make a political name for herself? It’s unlikely, beating a machine, subverting the hierarchies, jumping to the head of the line. Doing that sounds impossible in California or Texas or New York. Except that Barack Obama seems to have done just that with the nation, and, with the Palin pick, McCain apparently sees that kind of dynamism as a key to success. And if it does the trick for McCain, then, for the first time, somebody will remember Alaska on election night.
*In fairness, Delaware only has about 850,000 people. And I do like Alaska–after all, I went to high school there and my family lives there still.
**I grew up around hunting and guns, too. Something like that is not necessarily a conservative attribute, but is boiled down to useful keywords in elections.
|The Whale Hunt is worth a look. It’s a high-production slideshow (come on, that’s what it is) created by Jonathan Harris, who is a mere 10 days younger than me. He spent a week on the northern shore of Alaska, photographing a group of natives. Some of the photos are really great, others are just pictures–the conceit was that he took a photo ever five minutes. The whole thing is an impressive construction.|
Entitled “Alaska’s congressman still has clout,” the article emphasizes how powerful Young had become during Republican domination of Congress. While senior members of the minority party still have great influence (though mainly within the party), the guarantees that Young might have made to Alaska–such as, most famously, the so-called “Bridge to Nowhere,” but also drilling in ANWR–will be even harder to follow through on. As reporter Sam Bishop wrote:
During the past month, Young repeatedly stated that the House would stay under Republican control. He said the incessant media speculation about a Democratic takeover was generated by wishful thinking.
Speaking with Alaska reporters in Washington, D.C., before Congress recessed in early October, Young was upbeat about his future options.
“I am in the catbird’s seat when it comes right down to it,” he said.
With the exception of Tony Knowles’s eight years as governor from 1994 to 2002, and Wally Hickel’s Alaska Independence Party governorship (though the first time Hickel was governor, he was a Republican), Alaska has been dominated by Republicans at the state and federal level for the last couple of decades. It is a routine argument told to Alaskan voters that they should keep voting for Republicans if only for strategic reasons: with Republican dominance, why offend national Republicans or risk losing federal dollars by electing a Democratic senator or representative? Essentially, go along to get along.
For more than a decade, Alaska has received the most per capita federal funding of any state. Last year, it was $985 per capita–an amount that fell to $489 this year when Sen. Ted Stevens was rotated out of the Appropriations chairmanship. But that still made Alaska number one. With the new incoming Congress, will Alaska remain on top?
Tony in Alaska (who also happens to be brother of “It is, in fact” founder Tim) sent in some images from last month’s Chatanika Days, mentioned in an earlier post on this site about outhouse races. Thanks for the pictures, Tony.
A North Carolinian correspondent of a colleague of mine recently noted that the outhouse is “quintessentially southern.” This aroused a peculiar response, and, possessed of some form of outhouse inspiration, I felt compelled to share the following (in a germinal form) with my entire department, and now (in a sort of sprouted form), with you:
In light of Ms. Diggins’ assertion that outhouses are “quintessentially southern,” I am compelled to note that although the outhouse may be the image that she believes crystallizes in our minds when we think of the South, their cultural significance is characterized by a special geographic diversity.
They are ubiquitous in Alaska, which in some key ways is quite the opposite of the South. And in the late winter, just about every tenth town hosts outhouse races in the snow (probably because it would take the canvassing of at least ten towns’ worth of people to field a competitive set of outhouse racers). The outhouse race is enough of a cultural marker to be listed in the calendars of publications in the state. Even our landed aristocracy take part, appropriating the outhouses of their serfs—a necessary price paid for the all-consuming drive to accumulate accolades.
The most famous race, from my parochially Interior point of view, is probably the Chatanika Days Outhouse Race, in the busted gold-town of Chatanika, a surprisingly scenic 28 miles northeast of Fairbanks. Feast on the visual wonders of Chatanika here (unfortunately, there are no outhouse race photos).
That said, as a (lapsed) Alaskan, I’m happy to cede the platonic outhouse to North Carolina, and we Alaskans will cling to our idealized visions of imposing mountains, abundant wildlife, bonanza oil fields, and rampant political nepotism, even in the face of imperfect realities.
I did finally find a picture of the races from none other than the Army post Fort Wainwright’s Morale, Welfare, and Recreation [Program, presumably]. Looks like the races are scheduled for March 11 and 12 this year.
(Bodie Outhouse photo at top by Flickr star Sara Heinrichs.)