Alaska has elected a Democrat to represent it in Washington, D.C., and all it took was incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Stevens standing trial and being convicted on seven felony charges days before the election.
Begich claimed a narrow and improbable victory this week after nearly all votes had been counted, two weeks after Election Day.
The last time Alaska elected a Democrat to Congress was in the early 1970s, with victories by Begich's father, Nick Begich, in 1970 and 1972, and with Sen. Mike Gravel in 1974.
Begich said Tuesday he knew what a difficult challenge he faced in attempting to unseat "Uncle Ted" from the seat he's held for 40 years, making him the longest serving Republican ever in the U.S. Senate.
Even after the conviction, 147,000 Alaskans voted to continue to have Stevens represent them in the state.
"It's hard for people to make those changes," Begich said at a Wednesday press conference. "They've been voting for him for many, many years."
Stevens continued to maintain his innocence even after his trial, and argued that the jury verdict didn't technically mean he'd been "convicted."
He won support from many in the state, ranging from Republican Party Chairman Randy Ruedrich to Juneau's Cathy Muñoz, newly elected to the Alaska House of Representatives.
Begich said the number of votes he got wasn't as surprising as it seemed, given Stevens' history.
"There's a lot of respect for his service, they were having an emotionally tough time" voting against someone who had done so much for Alaska over the years, he said.
Begich, too, acknowledged Stevens' history, but said Alaska was now moving toward the future.
Gov. Sarah Palin was among the prominent Republicans congratulating Begich, and calling it a "new era." She said she looked forward to working with him on Alaska issues.
"I am confident he will add a compelling new voice to the U.S. Senate," she said in a written statement.
Begich said he's known Palin since she was a city council member in Wasilla, and has worked with her on issues in the past, regardless of partisan differences.
Fellow Sen. Lisa Murkowski also welcomed Begich to the Senate, and identified some of the issues she expected to work with him on, including rural health care and energy policy. Begich campaigned on those issues as well.
Murkowski went on to praise Stevens' work for Alaska.
"For decades he has selflessly served our state, and the benefits of his hard work and dedication to Alaska will be felt for generations," she said.
Rep. Don Young's statement said he stood ready to work with Begich and Murkowski on behalf of Alaska, but mostly praised Stevens.
"There isn't anything or anyone in Alaska that he hasn't helped or provided for, from telemedicine to missile defense to the financing our military and the bases. His legacy will live on forever," Young said in a written statement.
At Begich's Wednesday press conference with Alaska reporters, he said he would remain mayor until January to work on budgeting and other issues.
Begich said he was preparing to work with other members of the delegation in a bipartisan manner on issues important to Alaska.
"We're going to create a new type of partnership," he said.
That will include issues such as climate change, health care and energy policy that Begich said Stevens had neglected.
"These are new issues we'll bring to the forefront," he said.
Begich was declared the winner Tuesday after final vote counts showed his 3,724-vote lead to be insurmountable given the few votes left to be counted.
Stevens issued a statement today acknowledging Begich had been elected and saying he and his staff stood willing to help him prepare for his new position.
"I am proud of the campaign we ran and regret that the outcome was not what we had hoped for," Stevens said in a statement. "I am deeply grateful to Alaskans for allowing me to serve them for 40 years in the U.S. Senate. It has been the greatest honor of my life to work with Alaskans of all political persuasions to make this state that we all love a better place."
It was the Stevens campaign's first public statement since he fell behind in vote counting a week after the election.
Stevens' e-mailed statement made no mention of the possibility of a recount. Begich's lead is outside the range in which the state would pay for a recount, but Stevens could elect to pay for the $15,000 cost himself.
Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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