Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Specter leaves a shrinking GOP tent

Analysis: Specter leaves a shrinking GOP tent

WASHINGTON (AP) — With Sen. Arlen Specter's switch to the Democrats, the Republican Party is increasingly at risk of being viewed as a mostly Southern and solidly conservative party, an identity that might take years to overcome.

Specter's move, which rocked Congress and the political world Tuesday, is the latest blow to Republicans, especially in the Northeast, once a GOP stronghold. The region's Republicans now have been reduced to a scant presence in the House and a dwindling influence in the Senate.

But Specter's defection has symbolic and immediate ramifications for the GOP nationwide. It makes it easier for Democrats, fairly or not, to paint the party as ideologically rigid and alien to large swaths of the country.

Olympia Snowe of Maine, one of the Senate's few remaining moderate Republicans, called Specter's decision another sign that her party must move toward the center.

"Ultimately, we're heading to having the smallest political tent in history," Snowe said. "If the Republican Party fully intends to become a majority party in the future, it must move from the far right back toward the middle."

But Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky was defiant.

"I do not accept that we are going to be a regional party," he said. "We're working very hard to compete throughout the country."

Specter's departure follows recent Republican losses in once-reliable states. While Barack Obama was cruising to the White House last fall, Republicans were losing long-held Senate seats in Alaska, Colorado, New Mexico, North Carolina and Virginia. A moderate Republican lost his seat in Oregon, and the same seems likely to happen when Minnesota's long recount is settled.

In the House, Republicans have suffered deep losses in the last two elections, especially in the Northeast. Last week, Democrat Scott Murphy won a special election in a heavily Republican congressional district in upstate New York. Murphy will be sworn in Wednesday, giving Democrats' 256 House seats to 178 for Republicans with one vacancy.

The congressional Republicans' base is shrinking, leaving them with strongholds only in the South and parts of the mountain West.

With the departure of each centrist, including Pennsylvania's Specter, the party also appears more firmly right-of-center. Polls show most Americans nearer the political center, and Democratic leaders were happy Tuesday to promote the GOP's image as narrow-minded.

"This is now officially a Republican Party where moderates need not apply," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.

Specter made similar remarks. "The Republican Party has moved farther and farther to the right," he said, adding to the trend with his switch.

Specter accused party leaders of abandoning moderate Republicans in tough races, saying, "there ought to be an uprising."

In the 1970s, '80s and early '90s, the nation's political realignment favored the GOP. Voters in many of the 11 former Confederate states ousted Democrats by the dozens, no longer accepting the old odd-bedfellows alliance of Southern conservatives and more dominant Northern liberals.

With the Northeast still home to many "Rockefeller Republicans" — centrists in the mold of former New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller — the realignment pinched Democrats hard.

In recent years, however, the tide has reversed. Moderate-to-liberal voters in the Northeast and Pacific West felt increasingly at odds with the national Republican Party, and they began electing more Democrats to local and federal posts. Obama won surprising victories in Virginia, North Carolina and Indiana, though it's far from clear that Democrats can hold those states.

The result is a shrinking and increasingly right-leaning GOP, throughout the nation and in Congress. There, moderate Republicans are almost an endangered species. While lonely, they may play pivotal roles in brokering legislative deals, especially in the Senate.

Snowe and her Republican colleague from Maine, Susan M. Collins, now are the Senate's most prominent GOP moderates.

Collins said she was "very, very disappointed and surprised" by Specter's defection. "It's something I would never do," she said, but she called on her party to be more inclusive.

"The Republican Party has been most successful when it has adopted the big tent approach that was favored by Ronald Reagan, by Gerald Ford" and others, Collins said.

Obama hailed Specter's switch, but its blessing may prove mixed. The president vowed a more bipartisan era in Washington, and the loss of another GOP centrist will make Congress more partisan than before.

Republican leaders, meanwhile, faced an uphill battle in next year's Pennsylvania Senate race even before Specter made the switch. In that sense, they probably have lost little. Besides, only 15 years ago some pundits predicted permanent minority status for Democrats, following their huge losses in the 1994 elections.

Political fortunes can change rapidly, and unexpectedly. But for now, Republicans hold distinct minority status in the House and Senate, where Democrats and independents hold 59 seats to 40 for the GOP. They confront a popular Democratic president, and they face numerous ill-timed retirements in next year's Senate races.

Tuesday was another bad day in a political season that some Republicans must feel cannot possibly get worse.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

You by-God don't fuck with Ted Stevens!

A federal judge this morning tossed out the conviction of former senator Ted Stevens and assigned an outside lawyer to investigate allegations of misconduct by the prosecutors who tried him on public corruption charges.

In throwing out the October conviction, U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan called accusations that prosecutors mishandled evidence and witnesses "shocking and disturbing." In his 25 years on the bench, the judge said he had "never seen anything approaching the mishandling and misconduct in this case." He then urged Attorney General Eric H. Holder to better train prosecutors about the requirements for turning over evidence to defense lawyers that may help their case.

Stevens, 85, who narrowly lost reelection eight days after being found guilty of seven counts of lying on financial disclosure forms, said the actions of prosecutors had "nearly destroyed" his faith in the criminal justice system. But he thanked the judge and a new team of Justice Department lawyers for pressing to uncover the truth.

One of those Justice Department lawyers, Paul O'Brien, told Sullivan that "we deeply, deeply regret that this occurred."

Last week, the Justice Department asked Sullivan to throw out the conviction after officials discovered prosecutors' notes of an April 2008 interview that contradicted testimony of a key witness. It was the latest of several revelations of potential misconduct by prosecutors with the Justice Department's Public Integrity Unit in connection with this trial. Sullivan chastised them several times during the trial for how they handled witnesses and evidence.

At least twice, the judge instructed the jury to ignore evidence introduced by the prosecution. After the trial, the problems didn't end. A witness complained about being lied to by federal authorities about an immunity deal. And an FBI agent filed a report that accused prosecutors and fellow agents of misconduct.


In February, Sullivan held three prosecutors -- William Welch II, Brenda Morris and Patricia Stemler -- in contempt for failing to comply with a court order. Welch is the head of the public corruption unit, and Morris was the lead prosecutor. Six members of the prosecution team eventually withdrew from the case.

Much of the hearing today focused on what transpired during an April 15, 2008, interview with the key witness, Bill Allen. During that interview, according to notes taken by two of the prosecutors, Allen said he did not recall talking to a friend of Stevens's about sending the senator a bill for work on his home, according to Sullivan.

Under oath at trial, however, Allen testified that he was told by the friend to ignore a note Stevens sent seeking a bill for the remodeling work.

"Bill, don't worry about getting a bill" for Stevens, Allen said the friend told him. "Ted is just covering his [expletive]."

It was an explosive moment at the trial and buttressed prosecutors' arguments that Stevens knew he was receiving gifts and was trying to create a paper trial as a cover story if anyone ever asked about them. But defense attorneys have argued that Allen lied on the stand. They have noted in court papers that Allen did not mention that conversation during at least 20 interviews with agents and prosecutors.

Prosecutors who took the notes and participated in the interview have not been identified. Stevens's attorney, Brendan Sullivan, said that Brenda Morris, the lead prosecutor on the case, did not take part in the interview, which was conducted in Alaska. Two prosecutors participated from Washington by telephone, Brendan Sullivan said.

During the two-hour hearing, the judge said he couldn't trust the Justice Department to conduct an internal probe into the actions of prosecutors. So, the judge said, he was taking the rare step of starting criminal contempt proceedings and appointed an outside attorney, Henry F. Schuelke III, to investigate the misconduct allegations. After gathering evidence, Schuelke will submit a report to the judge with a recommendation on whether to hold the prosecutors in contempt for violating court rules.

The judge can then hold a trial to examine the allegations and decide what sanctions to impose. He can fine them or send them to jail. Those being investigated are Welch, Morris, Joseph Bottini, Nicholas Marsh, Edward Sullivan and James Goeke. Morris has declined to comment in the past. Other prosecutors could not be reached or did not return phone calls seeking comment.

After a month-long trial, Stevens was convicted of not reporting on Senate disclosure forms that he accepted about $250,000 in gifts and free renovations to his home in Girdwood, Alaska. Most of the gifts and free remodeling work were supplied by Bill Allen, chief executive of Veco, a now-defunct oil services company. Stevens testified in his own defense, but jurors said he came off as evasive, arrogant and combative. His testimony also did not jibe with the evidence, they have said.

His legal team said the result would have been different if they knew about the results of prosecutors' interview with Allen. "It is clear from the evidence that the government engaged in intentional misconduct," Brendan Sullivan told the judge.