The indictment of Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens on charges that he lied about accepting gifts from an oil contractor only adds to his party’s already bleak electoral prospects in November, and not simply because it could cost the GOP a Senate seat that should be safe.
While Stevens has vowed to fight charges and, through a spokesman, to move "full steam ahead" with his re-election bid, he’s received little support from Alaska’s Republican governor and no comment yet from his own GOP leader in the Capitol.
His indictment, though, could knock Republicans off message just as party leaders hoped to gain traction on one of the few issues in which voters solidly side with them: producing more domestic oil.
Stevens is the single most prominent advocate of oil drilling in protected areas, and charges that he took more than a quarter-million dollars worth of unreported gifts from oil services contractor Veco Corp. and its executives will play right into Democratic efforts to paint Republicans as a party captive to Big Oil.
Stevens, 84, the first sitting U.S. senator to face federal indictment since 1993, declared Tuesday, "I am innocent of these charges and intend to prove that."
"Our office has been flooded today with calls and e-mails from supporters urging the senator to press on," campaign spokesman Aaron Saunders said.
Whether Stevens will indeed press ahead despite being stripped of his powerful committee posts — or seek an exit strategy that might keep his once safe seat in GOP hands — is anybody’s guess.
But media queries about Stevens’ future are likely to engulf Republican efforts Wednesday to keep voters focused on Democrats’ refusal to open restricted areas such as Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.
Stevens’ indictment gives Democrats a new edge in their drive to win his seat and more momentum in their push to capture a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority in the Senate.
Republicans are playing defense in far more House and Senate races than the majority Democrats. And they’re hobbled by large financial disadvantages in a punishing re-election climate.
Colleagues in both parties reacted Tuesday with sorrow about Stevens’ indictment on seven felony charges of not reporting the gifts from VECO and Bill Allen, the company’s chief executive.
"He’s dedicated his life to the Senate and Alaska and you just hate to see something like this happen," said Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., a Stevens friend.
Stevens is an old-school throwback to an earlier, more bipartisan era in the Senate and has been a remarkably effective advocate for his state over his nearly four decades in office.
But he has been caught up in burgeoning corruption scandal that has sent three state legislators to federal prison. Stevens, who as Senate president pro tempore was third in the line of presidential succession for four years, hopes to win acquittal and avoid a comparable fate.
He’s already been stripped of his committee leadership posts under GOP rules, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., failed to offer any words of support Tuesday. Stevens was the top Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee and the influential Senate Defense Appropriations subcommittee.
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin told reporters Tuesday that it "would be premature at this point" to demand that Stevens resign.
The Justice Department on Tuesday accused Stevens of accepting expensive work on his home in Girdwood, Alaska, a ski resort town outside Anchorage, from VECO and its executives. VECO normally builds oil processing equipment and pipelines, but its employees helped do the work on Stevens’ home.
Prosecutors said that work included a new first floor, garage, wraparound deck, plumbing and electrical wiring. He also is accused of accepting from VECO a gas grill, furniture and tools, and of failing to report swapping an old Ford for a new Land Rover for his daughter Lily.
From May 1999 to August 2007, prosecutors said, the senator concealed "his continuing receipt of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of things of value from a private corporation."
Stevens said in a statement distributed by his office: "I have proudly served this nation and Alaska for over 50 years. My public service began when I served in World War II. It saddens me to learn that these charges have been brought against me. I have never knowingly submitted a false disclosure form required by law as a U.S. senator."
Stevens had been expected to win his six-way primary on Aug. 26, and then go on to face a steep challenge from Mark Begich, the Democratic mayor of Anchorage.