Sarah Palin, Alaska's next senator?

With Ted Stevens' grip on his Senate seat loosening, Palin might just have another way to Washington.

Published November 11, 2008 10:55PM (EST)

A huge number of votes in Alaska remain uncounted, and in the balance is the Senate seat of Sen. Ted Stevens, convicted felon. According to Nate Silver, there's a decent chance that challenger Mark Begich will manage to erase the margin of 3,200 votes once the counting, which begins Wednesday, is done. But what happens if he doesn't?

There appears to be a consensus that Stevens will not, under any circumstances, serve out his term. Even conservative senators are urging their colleagues to get ready to expel Stevens, and Republican leader Mitch McConnell said there is "zero chance" he'll avoid that fate. Those seem like pretty good indicators that the necessary 67 votes are there to expel Stevens.

If Stevens is reelected only to be expelled or resign, things start to get weird, even by local standards. Alaska's exact procedure for filling an incomplete Senate term is unknown, because it hasn't been tested since it was last changed, and there are questions about its constitutionality. The state has a history of changing these laws frequently, to suit immediate partisan concerns (see this Anchorage Daily News article for a brief history). The last modification of the law came in 2004, after Gov. Frank Murkowski infuriated Alaskans by appointing his daughter Lisa to fill the Senate seat he had vacated.

In response, the Alaska Legislature passed a law taking away the governor's power of appointment and mandating a special election, but providing for an interim gubernatorial appointment. Not satisfied by this, irascible Alaskan voters passed an initiative that provides for the same procedure, minus the interim appointment. (At the same time, they reelected legacy appointment Lisa Murkowski to a full term. Go figure.) Which law applies? The 17th Amendment to the Constitution empowers state legislatures to determine the procedure for replacing senators. But the state of Alaska empowers its own people to legislate through the initiative process. Nobody had bothered to figure this out before now -- maybe they just figured Alaska's senators were immortal.

So -- because we know this is what you're wondering -- can Sarah Palin appoint herself to Ted Stevens' seat, or does she have to run for it? Short answer: If she wants the seat, she has to run for it, one way or the other. She doesn't, so far as Salon can tell, have an opinion on the constitutional question. But keep an eye out for her becoming a 17th Amendment fundamentalist.

Actually, considering the public outrage over the Murkowski family's nepotism, it seems safe to guess that Alaskans wouldn't cotton to a Palin self-appointment, even an interim one. (Also, historically, governors who appoint themselves to the Senate basically end their careers by doing so.) If she wants to come to Washington and attend all those Georgetown cocktail parties, her best bet is probably to run in the special election. And she'd have a good chance at it. Her approval may be lower than it once was, but it's still 65 percent, which is nothing to sneeze at.

By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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