Democrat takes 800-vote lead in Alaska U.S. Senate race

Mark Begich made a dramatic comeback Wednesday to overtake 40-year incumbent Ted Stevens for the lead in Alaska's U.S. Senate race.

Begich, who was losing after election night, now leads Stevens by 814 votes -- 132,196 to 131,382 -- with the state still to count roughly 40,000 more ballots over the next week.

The state Division of Elections tallied about 60,000 absentee, early and questioned ballots from around the state on Wednesday. The ballots broke heavily in the Democrat's favor, erasing the 3,000-vote lead the Republican Stevens held after election night Nov. 4.

Stevens is trying to become the first person ever elected to the U.S. Senate after a being found guilty of felony crimes. A Washington, D.C., jury found him guilty a week before the election of lying about gifts on his financial disclosure forms.

The state still needs to count at least 15,000 questioned ballots and an estimated 25,000 absentees. With all the absentee votes coming in, this will be one of the biggest turnouts, if not the biggest in terms of ballots cast, the state has ever seen. That's despite questions in the media and on blogs about why turnout appeared low on Election Day.

Most regional elections headquarters will count their remaining ballots on Friday. But the most populous region, based in Anchorage, won't count its ballots until either Monday or Wednesday, state elections chief Gail Fenumiai said.

Begich pushed hard in the campaign for people to vote early, a factor both Democrats and Republicans said contributed to his surge. More than 9,000 of those early ballots weren't counted until Wednesday to give the state time to double check and make sure people didn't vote early and then come back and vote on Election Day as well.

Candidates push early voting as a strategy to take away the potential their supporters won't get around to it Election Day.

The absentee votes counted Wednesday were those that made it in to state officials before Election Day. Many of those might have been cast before Stevens came back to Alaska from his trial in Washington, D.C. Republican strategists credited Stevens' homecoming, which was followed by rallies and advertisements where he blasted the verdict, as playing a key role in winning back support of voters.

Neither candidate was around Wednesday night as the drama unfolded. Begich was on vacation with his family "at an undisclosed location" and not available on Wednesday night to comment, his campaign staff said. Begich, who is the mayor of Anchorage, also did not return a message left on his cell phone.

Begich will be appearing on national liberal talk shows today to discuss the election. He will be on "The Ed Schultz Show" on radio and "The Rachel Maddow Show" on MSNBC.

Stevens is back in Washington, D.C., where it was well past midnight when the final returns came in. His campaign spokesman said there would be no comment on the turnaround.

Republican Party of Alaska Chairman Randy Ruedrich wasn't giving up hope for Stevens, saying Begich's advantage could lessen as the state finishes counting the early votes.

He said remaining mail-in absentee votes "should be much more favorable to Republicans" than the ones counted so far.

But state Democratic Party spokeswoman Bethany Lesser said Begich workers are cautiously optimistic the lead would hold. She noted that the election district based in Nome, which covers Northern and Western Alaska, has not counted any of its absentee ballots yet. Begich beat Stevens in that area on Election Day, just as he did throughout Bush Alaska, a traditional Stevens stronghold that relies on federal appropriations.

Begich also won the voting on all four of Alaska's military installations on Election Day. That makes the Begich campaign optimistic about overseas absentee ballots from service members.

The state didn't have a breakdown Wednesday night of where the remaining ballots come from.

Anchorage pollsters Ivan Moore and David Dittman, who had predicted a Begich victory before the election, both said Wednesday night they believe the Democrat would pull it off.

"I think it's all over at this point," said Moore, who often works for Democrats but didn't poll for either candidate in this race.

He said mail-in absentee ballots don't favor Republicans as much as they used to. They historically tended to be from people out of town on business or other reasons, Moore said, adding that they were generally wealthier and more Republican than other voters, he said.

But now a wider variety of people vote absentee, he said. Also, Moore said, questioned ballots tend to favor Democrats, and are often people who have recently moved and might be single, less established, without as much money.

Dittman, who polled for Stevens during the campaign and tends to work for Republicans, also predicted Begich's lead would widen, but not drastically, as the remaining votes are counted.

While Stevens' era in the Senate is in danger of ending, another longtime Alaska Republican is returning to Washington, D.C. Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young maintained his solid lead over Democratic challenger Ethan Berkowitz after Wednesday's count. Berkowitz made some headway but Young still led by more than 15,000 votes.