Alaska's Sen. Stevens Wins GOP Primary

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Despite a federal indictment, Republican Sen. Ted Stevens won his primary race for Senate and immediately proclaimed the November election a "piece of cake." He'll now move on to the general election, while facing charges that he failed to report gifts from an oil company.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

It's Day to Day from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand. A corruption scandal in Alaska is the backdrop to a nail-biter of a primary. Last night, long-term Republican Senator Ted Stevens cruised to easy reelection despite a federal ethics investigation. That was not the case for his colleague, longtime Republican Congressman Don Young. Young has been Alaska's lone congressman since 1973, but as it stands right now, the race is too close to call. NPR's Martin Kaste is following all of this. And, Martin, how close is this election?

MARTIN KASTE: Well, Madeleine, it's been back and forth all night. Don Young and his chief rival, Lieutenant Governor Sean Parnell, have been trading the lead. And they've always been especially, in more recent hours, within a few hundred votes of each other. So it's very close.

It's going to be one of those elections, probably, where they have to just wait for all the absentee ballots to come in. There are a few thousand of those out, and there might still be some in the mail and might be just enough there to swing the election one way or the other. So this is a very much so - very much a squeaker.

BRAND: Well, you know, why is this? Young has been popular for years. As we've said, he's been the congressman since 1973. Alaskans seem to like him. Why are Republicans turning against him?

KASTE: Well, it's two things. First of all, there's a real mood right now in Alaska of disgust with the political class there, in particular the Republicans, who've been dominant in Alaska politics. There's been this ongoing federal investigation of corruption in the state legislature. Three state legislators are now sitting in federal prison for bribery. The oil companies, especially one particular - one company in particular, have been under a lot of scrutiny for their too close relationship with a lot of politicians.

And this whole sort of miasma has been kind of settling over the state of Alaska, and I think a lot of Republican voters have been looking for new faces. Don Young has not been charged with anything, unlike his colleague in the Senate, or his co-Alaskan in the Senate, Ted Stevens, who does face a trial coming up in September.

Don Young has not been charged with anything, but he is believed to be under investigation. And apparently, he has spent about a million dollars from his campaign chest on lawyers recently. So there's definitely a big question mark about him.

But - and then, more specifically, the very popular Republican governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, who's made a real crusade out of the whole cause of reform and transparency in politics, she did not support Don Young. She did not support Alaska's incumbent congressman, which is very unusual for a governor of the same party to do. She instead backed his rival, the lieutenant governor, Sean Parnell.

BRAND: OK. So we mentioned that Don Young has not been charged with anything. However, Senator Ted Stevens has. He's facing trial coming up. He's charged with concealing gifts from oil company executives, and yet, he won big last night. Explain that?

KASTE: Yeah, really, this primary election turned out to be no sweat for Ted Stevens. He, I think, cleared over 60 percent. I think, in some ways, he's played this very cleverly or very strategically. He's really focused on this trial that's coming up. He has adamantly asserted his innocence

And he says that he's making the campaign about the trial. He's telling Alaskans, who have a deep reservoir of affection for him - they call him Uncle Ted - you know, he's telling them, watch the trials. See what happens to me there. And so I think these primary voters took him at that proposal, and they said, fine. And we'll keep you in the running, and we'll see what happens at this trial.

BRAND: Now, we've been talking about the Republican primary. What happens in the general?

KASTE: Well, if Don Young wins this primary, then he goes on to face a fellow named Ethan Berkowitz. He's a Democrat, a former Democratic leader in the state legislator. He's something of an up and comer, and he's pretty well known in Alaska for having blown the whistle on some of the questionable connections between fellow legislators and the oil industry a couple of years ago. So that could be a tight election.

BRAND: Thank you, Martin.

KASTE: You're welcome.

BRAND: That's NPR's Martin Kaste.

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