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Ted Stevens' conviction the crowning blow in bad year for GOP senators

October 27, 2008 |  7:20 pm

More than a year ago, The Ticket noted how everything seemed to be coming up roses for the Democrats as the landscape took shape for 2008 Senate races. Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska

Now, with the election a week away, the party caught still another break with the conviction this afternoon of the longest-serving Republican in the Senate -- Ted Stevens of Alaska -- on all seven counts of failing to report an array of gifts.

Most obviously, the jury's verdict is a huge blow to Stevens' bid for a seventh full Senate term.

Is it a fatal one?

We'd pause before writing off Stevens -- even with a felony conviction weighing him down -- because of the  status he long enjoyed among his constituents. And in a statement he issued, Stevens, right, made clear he'll depict himself as the target of unscrupulous and unethical federal prosecutors. "This verdict is the result of the unconscionable manner in which the Justice Department lawyers conducted this trial."

But Anne Hays of the Anchorage-based Hays Research Group showed no hesitation to make a political prediction as word spread in her state of Stevens' conviction.

"I think it sinks him," she told us as word spread of Stevens' conviction. His race against Democrat Mark Begich "had tightened up," she noted. "But I think this will break it out again" in Begich's favor.

More broadly, the verdict is yet another stain on a GOP brand ...

... that hardly needed it . Although it shouldn't directly hurt a specific Republican candidate, it adds to a general malaise that has enveloped the party -- and which many GOP officials fear will only get thicker with next week's election results.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky If Hays is right and Stevens is now doomed politically, that gives the Democrats three rock-solid Senate pickups. In Virginia, Mark Warner is cruising to an easy victory for an open seat that a Republican had held (a new Washington Post poll shows him holding onto a whopping 30-percentage-point lead).

Similarly, in New Mexico, Tom Udall is far ahead in the race for an open GOP seat.

The party also is counting on two more gains. In Colorado -- in the contest to fill still another seat a Republican is giving up -- Mark Udall (Tom's cousin) appears headed for a win.

And in New Hampshire, Jeanne Shaheen is favored to take out incumbent John Sununu (one new poll, though, shows the Republican still within shouting distance).

Democrats will be grossly disappointed if they don't win all five of these races. And they've set their sights on more -- a victory by Al Franken over incumbent Norm Coleman in Minnesota, along with triumphs by Democratic challengers over incumbents Liddy Dole in North Carolina and Gordon Smith in Oregon.

While hoping for a trifecta, the Democrats will gladly live with two out of these three.

Here's what would really make it a big night for the party -- knocking off Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, above, in Kentucky. That seems unlikely, but the mere broaching of the prospect speaks to the political winds that might be blowing.

An upset of McConnell truly would be history-making -- no leader of the Senate's GOP faction has been bounced from office since 1932, when Franklin Roosevelt's landslide also took out James Watson of Indiana. By contrast, Democrats lost their Senate leader as recently as four years ago, when Tom Daschle of South Dakota was defeated by John Thune.

Not every race has played out the way Democrats wanted. Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, once seen as vulnerable, seems headed for reelection. But that has been the rare exception in a season of discontent for candidates with an "R" beside their names.

-- Don Frederick

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Photo credits: Associated Press (Stevens); AFP (McConnell)

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