Republicans Stand By Stevens' Re-Election Bid
DEBORAH AMOS, host:
Alaska's Ted Stevens, the Senate's most senior Republican, is to be arraigned today in Federal court in Washington. He was indicted Tuesday on seven felony counts for allegedly lying about gifts from an Alaskan contractor. Still, he plans to run for a seventh term this fall. And as NPR's David Welna reports, most of his Republican colleagues are at least for now standing by him.
DAVID WELNA: When Ted Stevens got indicted, GOP rules forced him to step aside as the top Republican on the Commerce Committee. Taking his place is Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, who was herself indicted as a sitting senator fifteen years ago but later acquitted. She made no attempt yesterday to distance herself from her indicted colleague.
Senator KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON (Republican, Texas): Ted Stevens has said that he is going to fight these charges, and so he has every right - as any American citizen would - to do that and to continue with his life and his career while he's doing it.
Senator ORRIN HATCH (Republican, Utah): I'm hoping and praying that he runs that race and kicks tail out there in Alaska.
WELNA: That's Utah Republican Orrin Hatch. He thinks the timing of Stevens' indictment - coming just 98 days before the election - is in his words really suspect.
Senator HATCH: I am not one who believes the Justice Department is made up of a bunch of sleazebags, but I know they're in politics down there and there are many down there who would love to see Senator Stevens hurt.
WELNA: Another GOP colleague, South Carolina's Lindsey Graham, is also seeking reelection this fall. He says he would not pressure the 84-year-old senator to step aside.
Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): If you have a cloud over you - I guess is what any indictment does - I don't feel comfortable telling someone what to do politically. I'm not from Alaska. It's up to the people of Alaska.
WELNA: Stevens' seat is one of 23 that Senate Republicans are defending this fall, nearly twice the number of Democratic seats up for renewal. Nevada's John Ensign is in charge of a struggling GOP effort to hold onto those seats, but he gave no sign yesterday he wants Stevens to drop out of Alaska's August 26th GOP primary.
Senator JOHN ENSIGN (Republican, Nevada): There's a primary process. The candidates are on the ballot right now and we're going to wait to see how that whole thing plays out.
WELNA: There are some within the GOP caucus who criticized the more than $3 billion worth of earmarks Stevens has won for Alaskans over the past four years. South Carolina's Jim DeMint is one of those critics. But Dement preferred yesterday to talk about Senate Republicans' push for a vote on expanding oil exploration.
Senator JIM DEMINT (Republican, South Carolina): What we're doing on energy is so much more important, and we've got to hold the line there. So I'm trying not to get distracted on this.
WELNA: Still, the indictment of the Republicans' most ardent proponent of oil drilling on charges he illegally took gifts from an oil firm has been a distraction. Rutgers University Senate expert Ross Baker says Stevens' penchant for earmarks is also out of step with the GOP's White House contender.
Professor ROSS BAKER (Rutgers University): Among the many senators he crossed swords with, of course, was John McCain, because Ted Stevens in many ways represented in McCain's eyes the abuses of the earmark system.
WELNA: And what does it say that Republicans are closing ranks around Stevens at a moment when McCain's is their party's apparent presidential nominee?
Prof. BAKER: I think it indicates a lot of ambivalence about McCain.
WELNA: But Baker also suspects support for Stevens may fade quickly. Already six GOP Senate colleagues have returned contributions he made to their campaigns.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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Correction July 31, 2008
Early audio versions of this story attributed the Stevens indictment to the Offices of Professional Responsibility at the Department of Justice. They were not responsible for the indictment.