Jury Could Decide Alaska's Senate Race

If a jury convicts GOP Sen. Ted Stevens, Dems could pull off victory in Alaska.

Oct. 22, 2008— -- A 12-person federal jury in Washington, D.C., could essentially decide a U.S. Senate race more than 3,500 miles away in Alaska -- a race that could, in turn, be key to the Democrats' securing a 60-vote majority in the Senate.

The corruption trial of Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, promises to reverberate across the political landscape, regardless of its outcome.

"A jury of 12 residents of the District of Columbia will essentially elect their first U.S. Senator," a Republican strategist told ABC News.

Stevens, 84, is on trial for allegedly lying on required U.S. Senate financial disclosure forms in an effort to conceal $250,000 in home renovations and gifts, which prosecutors say a former oil services firm executive provided. The jury began deliberations this morning.

An acquittal would greatly bolster Stevens' chances of winning another six-year term. A conviction, meanwhile, would almost certainly mean the end of his four-decade Senate career, which started with his winning a special election in 1970.

Recent polling shows that the Alaska senate race is tight. But even if Stevens fends off his Democratic opponent, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, he would be under tremendous pressure to resign if convicted and could also encounter some roadblocks from the Senate Ethics Committee. He is the fourth-longest serving member of the Senate.

The four-week trial became a point of concern for Republicans, who are fighting off the Democrats' quest to attain a filibuster-proof majority of 60 senators. Democrats hold a slim majority of 51, comprising 49 Democrats and two independents who caucus with them.

With about a dozen competitive races around the country, a loss for the Republicans in Alaska would hand the Democrats a seat they had little chance of taking before the case heated up. Stevens had been under investigation since 2006, and a federal grand jury indicted him in July.

Stevens' attorneys decried the timing of the senator's prosecution from the very beginning, repeatedly citing its proximity to the November election. The judge expedited the trial so that Stevens would have a chance to resolve the case by Election Day. But a conviction would deal a blow to Republicans' efforts.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman, Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., summed up the concern as lawyers in the case made final pitches to the jury.

"If the trial comes to a conclusion and, as he believes, that he is found innocent, I think that he will win that election up there," Ensign told the Associated Press. "If it goes the other way, obviously, it really won't matter what happens in the election."

After his indictment, Stevens resigned his leadership roles on the Senate Commerce Committee and the Appropriations Committee's defense appropriations subcommittee. The ethics panel could convene to review the court case's outcome, and possibly vote to recommend his expulsion from the Senate.

If the committee were to recommend expulsion, the vote would then go to the full Senate, before which Stevens would have an opportunity to defend himself.

In the meantime, if convicted, he would be allowed to conduct business as usual, as that alone does not mean an automatic ouster from his seat. If he were to appeal a conviction, it's unclear when the committee would consider the matter.

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee, would appoint Stevens' interim replacement if he's kicked out of the Senate. A special election would take place at a later date to fill the spot.

Four Senators have been convicted of crimes while in office: Joseph Burton and John Hipple Mitchell in 1905, Truman Newberry in 1921 and Harrison Williams in 1981. Burton and Williams resigned before they could be expelled. Mitchell died before expulsion occurred and Newberry's conviction was overturned.

Fifteen members have been expelled from the Senate since 1789; fourteen of those cases were members charged with supporting the Confederacy. In several other cases, most recently the 1995 case of Bob Packwood, R-Ore., the senator has resigned before expulsion comes to a vote before the full Senate.