Monday's conviction of Republican Sen. Ted Stevens in a corruption trial is the latest bad luck for the McCain-Palin campaign, potentially tarnishing efforts to portray the GOP ticket as reform-driven, and rehashing Stevens' ties over several years to Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
John McCain has long had a strained relationship with Stevens due to the Arizona Senator's opposition to earmarks, which Stevens championed most infamously as the chief advocate of the "Bridge to Nowhere." But they have also assisted each other's political campaigns as fellow Republicans.
Stevens' political action committee, Northern Lights PAC, contributed $5000 to the McCain campaign in April 2008. In July, at least five prominent GOP senators, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, John Sununu (R-NH), Elizabeth Dole (R-NC), Gordon Smith (R-OR) and Susan Collins (R-ME) announced that they would give contributions from the PAC to charity.
Yet the McCain campaign appears to have held onto the money. A spokesman for the McCain campaign did not return calls for comment this afternoon.
In recent months, McCain and Palin, who swept into the governor's office on a promise to clean up corruption in Alaska, appear to have adopted a more lenient attitude to Stevens, refusing to criticize his fondness for earmarks -- Stevens requested the most earmarks, $200 million, in the current defense appropriations bills.
After Stevens was indicted earlier in the summer, Palin refused to call for his resignation, saying in July that the longtime Senator had "dedicated his life to the betterment of the state," according to the Anchorage Daily News.
I have great respect for the senator, and he needs to be heard across America. His voice, his experience, his passion needs to be heard across America so that Alaska can contribute more... There's a big difference between reality and perception [about] our relationship."
Stevens also backed up Palin in September when her claim to have opposed the 'Bridge To Nowhere" was questioned by those who looked at earlier comments she had made supporting the much-derided project.
Stevens, who once threatened to resign his Senate seat if the project was defeated, told reporters:
'I don't remember her ever campaigning for it. As a matter of fact, she was very critical of it at the time. And she took the money and did not use it for the bridge, so you're wrong, as far as I'm concerned,' Stevens said today... 'She was never really behind this," Stevens said today, reminding reporters of his impassioned defense of the project in 2005: 'I defended it in the Senate. She did not support that. She did not support that.'
In the close-knit world of Alaska politics, the two are also linked through mutual staffers. Palin's former chief of staff Mike Tibbles, who was accused of pressuring public safety commissioner and Troopergate victim Walt Monegan, works as Stevens' campaign manager.
And Steven Silver, the Washington lobbyist hired by Palin to help get earmarks for her hometown of Wasilla, was the former chief of staff for Stevens, according to USA Today.
Palin also served as the director of Ted Stevens' Excellence in Public Service Inc, a 527 group that raised unlimited funds from corporate donors, from 2003 until June 2005.
Most recently, Palin would not say whether she supported Stevens' re-election bid. According to the AP in September:
This week, Meghan Stapleton, the governor's former press secretary and now a spokeswoman for the McCain-Palin campaign, was also evasive. Asked if Ms. Palin supported Mr. Stevens for re-election, Ms. Stapleton said: 'I can't say. I'm not going to speak for her in terms of opposing or supporting him. But I know that they have worked well together, especially over the last few months, in making sure that Americans have fuel for their homes and businesses.'
In August, Stevens endorsed Palin as the Republican vice-presidential nominee:
Minnesota GOP Senator Norm Coleman, who is locked in a tight reelection fight, could be harmed by his ties to Stevens. Coleman's campaigns and PAC have received $30,000 from the Northern Lights PAC, which includes $10,000 for Coleman's 2008 campaign.
When Stevens was indicted in July, Coleman refused to return the money or give it to charity under the innocent-until-proven guilty principle:
"Under our system of justice, people are presumed innocent until proven guilty. I look at that principle before making any decisions about returning any contributions."
Later that month, Coleman's announced that he had given away $20,000 of the contributions but that $10,000 had already been spent in the last election cycle.