Sen. Ted Stevens’ election defeat marks the end of an era in which he held a commanding place in Alaska politics while wielding power on some of the most influential committees in Congress.
It also moves Senate Democrats within two seats of a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority and gives President-elect Barack Obama a stronger hand when he assumes office on Jan. 20.
On the day the longest-serving Republican in Senate history turned 85, he was ousted by Alaska voters troubled by his conviction on federal felony charges and eager for a new direction in Washington, where Stevens served since Lyndon B. Johnson was president.
Alaska voters "wanted to see change," said Democrat Mark Begich, who claimed a narrow victory Tuesday after a tally of remaining ballots showed him holding a 3,724-vote edge.
"Alaska has been in the midst of a generational shift — you could see it," said Begich, the Anchorage mayor.
Democrats now hold 58 Senate seats, when two independents who align with Democrats are included, with undecided races in Minnesota and Georgia.
"With seven seats and counting now added to the Democratic ranks in the Senate, we have an even stronger majority that will bring real change to America," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in a statement.
Stevens’ pursuit of a seventh term was damaged by his conviction in federal court — just days before the election — for lying on Senate disclosure forms to conceal more than $250,000 in gifts and home renovations from an oil field services company.
He was trying to become the first convicted felon to win election to the Senate. A survey of people leaving polling places conducted for The Associated Press and television networks found that two of three voters considered Stevens’ trial a factor in their decision. Begich voters cited it as an issue more often.
Stevens’ lawyer had demanded a speedy trial, hoping for exoneration in time to fight the first serious threat to his seat in decades. But the trial in Washington not only left Stevens a felon, it deprived him of time to campaign in his home state.
"I wouldn’t wish what I’m going through on anyone, my worst enemy," Stevens told reporters in Washington on Tuesday before the vote count. "I haven’t had a night’s sleep for almost four months."
Still, he said he will not ask President George W. Bush to give him a pardon for his seven felony convictions.
Tuesday’s tally of just over 24,000 absentee and other ballots gave Begich 150,728, or 47.76 percent, to 147,004, or 46.58 percent, for Stevens. There are about 2,500 overseas ballots yet to be counted.
A recount is possible. Stevens did not issue a statement, and campaign aides did not respond to calls for comment.
In Alaska, the losing candidate or a collection of 10 voters has three days to petition for a recount unless the vote was a tie, in which case it would be automatic. If the difference between the candidates is within 0.5 percent of the total votes cast, the state pays for the recount, to be started within three days of the recount petition. The state Elections Division has 10 days to complete the recount.
The crotchety octogenarian occupies an outsized place in Alaska history. His involvement in politics dates to the days before Alaska statehood, and he is esteemed for his ability to secure billions of dollars in federal aid for transportation and military projects. The Anchorage airport bears his name; to Alaskans, it’s simply "Uncle Ted."
"He symbolizes Alaska’s legitimacy, that Alaska is a player on the national stage as much as anybody else," University of Alaska Anchorage history professor Steve Haycox said.
His defeat could also allow Republican senators to sidestep the task of determining whether to kick out the longest serving member of their party in the Senate.
When counting resumed Tuesday, 1,022 votes divided the candidates out of about 315,000 ballots cast. Most of the those votes came from areas that had favored Begich — the Anchorage vicinity and the southeastern panhandle around Juneau.
It is a testament to Stevens’ popularity — he was once named "Alaskan of the Century" — that he won nearly half the votes, even after his conviction. He routinely brought home the highest number of government dollars per capita in the nation — more than $9 billion in 2006 alone, according to one estimate.
In a state where oil and politics have always mixed, the conviction came as part of a long-running investigation into government corruption centered around VECO.
Following the trial Stevens said he wanted another term "because I love this land and its people" and vowed to press on with an appeal. Professing his innocence, he blamed his legal problems on his former friend Bill Allen, the former VECO Corp. chairman, the government’s star witness.
Begich will be the first Democrat to represent Alaska in the Senate in nearly 30 years. He is the son of Nick Begich, Alaska’s third congressman, who died in a 1972 plane crash.
Stevens refused pleas from his own party leaders to step down after the verdict, including Sen. John McCain, the GOP presidential nominee who said the Alaska senator had "broken his trust with the people."
Stevens’ fall came shortly after another Alaskan, Gov. Sarah Palin, emerged as a national figure on the Republican presidential ticket. She called for Stevens to step aside at one point, but appeared to back away from that the day after the election, when returns showed Stevens with an edge.
"The people of Alaska just spoke," she said.
Associated Press writers Jesse J. Holland and Andrew Taylor in Washington and Rachel D’Oro in Anchorage contributed to this report.