Sen. Ted Stevens, the longest-serving Republican in the Senate, gave an emotional goodbye Thursday to the body he served for 40 years, signaling the end of an era for the Republican Party on the same day that a new poll shows the party’s popularity at historic lows.
“My motto has been here: To hell with politics, just do what is right for Alaska,” Stevens said during his 10-minute floor speech, a day after conceding defeat in his bid for an eighth term.
Stevens, who never shied from his desire secure for pork-barrel spending projects for his state, conceded defeat Wednesday to Democratic challenger Mark Begich after the latest count of absentee and questioned ballots from the Nov. 4 election widened the Anchorage mayor’s lead to 3,724 votes.
Even if Stevens had won, he still faced expulsion from the Senate after his October conviction in federal court for concealing gifts from an oil-services company.
So as the 85-year-old lawmaker walks away from the post that he has held since 1968, Republican approval polls remained in a free fall, suggesting that voters increasingly are tired of a party that is seen as having turned its back on fiscal responsibility in favor of widespread misuse of power.
A new Gallup Poll shows that just 34 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the Republican Party, as its leaders sought to redesign a conservative agenda aimed at winning back disaffected party members and independents.
“After suffering major blows in the election, the Republican Party is experiencing its worst image rating in a least a decade,” the Gallup Poll reported Thursday, with a whopping 61 percent of Americans holding an unfavorable view of the Republican Party.
The poll, conducted Nov. 13 to 16, found that the party’s anemic favorability rating has fallen by an additional six points, down from 40 percent in mid-October. Democrats, on the other hand, had a favorability rating of 55 percent, about the same as last month. Notably, 91 percent of Democrats approved of their party compared with just 78 percent of Republicans. The nationwide poll had a three-percentage-point margin of error.
Republican lawmakers, still smarting from the election beating, said the poll confirms that Republicans’ need to recommit itself to core conservative values of limited government and national security.
“I think we, as a party, need to restate our principles and stick with them - which are maintaining fiscal responsibility, maintaining a government that’s affordable, maintaining a strong commitment to national defense,” said Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, after learning of the country’s low esteem for his party.
The survey showed that a majority of Republican voters - 59 percent - want the party to become more conservative while 28 percent want it to remain on the same ideological path. Just 12 percent endorse a less conservative Republican Party. Independents divided evenly over how the Republican Party should veer, with 35 percent saying it should be more conservative and 35 percent saying it should be less conservative.
But Republican officials remained optimistic that they eventually will turn around their declining poll numbers when the economy comes under the watch of President-elect Barack Obama, who takes office in January.
“We’ve only got one way to go and that’s up,” said Katon Dawson, South Carolina’s Republican state chairman and a candidate for the Republican National Committee chairmanship.
“A couple of election losses in 2006 and 2008 sometimes make you reflect on how you need to change as an institution. We didn’t get our message out in the way we should have, but I’m encouraged by the opportunities I see in the future.”
Other Republican state chairmen said the falling approval rating reconfirmed that the party had to begin to rebuild its ranks by recruiting better candidates and staking out positions on issues that appeal to its conservative base as well as to independents and swing voters.
“Coming out of an election like this, the losing party would naturally see a dip in its popularity. The challenge is going to be whether this is going to be a short-term dip or a long-term dip,” said Ron Carey, Minnesota Republican Party chairman.
Despite heavy election losses, the Republicans voted to keep their top congressional leadership, with Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio as House minority leader and Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky remaining as minority leader. But new faces were put in other leadership posts, including the House and Senate campaign committees that will be in charge of recruiting candidates for 2010.
Mr. Boehner won another term as leader this week by saying, “America needs us to be the party of reform again.”
But on Thursday, a bipartisan collection of senators used floor time to speak glowingly of Stevens, affectionately known as “Uncle Ted” among his constituents.
Sens. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, and Pete V. Domenici, New Mexico Republican, wiped their face with handkerchiefs during and after Stevens speech.
“After a long, long time in politics, one finally comes to understand that the point of it all is in helping people; Ted Stevens has helped a lot of people,” said Mr. Byrd, the longest-serving senator in history. “Bless your heart Ted. I love you.”
Mr. McConnell added: “It’s safe to say without any fear of contradiction that no senator in the history of the United States has ever done more for his state than Sen. Ted Stevens.”
Yet Stevens’ public philanthropy for the 49th state often has been a source of controversy.
In 2005, he tried to steer more than $200 million for the construction of an enormous bridge linking mainland Alaska to a sparsely populated island. The infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” earmark eventually was axed but not before generating significant criticism and becoming a shorthand symbol of Washington’s pork-barrel spending.
But Stevens didn’t apologize for his passion for securing pet spending projects for Alaska.
“Where there was nothing but tundra and forest today there are airports, roads, ports, water and sewer systems, hospitals and clinics,” he said Thursday. Alaska “is no longer an impoverished territory. Alaska is a great state.”
The Alaska race wasn’t the only Senate race that wasn’t decided immediately after the Nov. 4 congressional elections.
Minnesota’s first-term Republican Sen. Norm Coleman leads Democratic challenger Al Franken by slightly more than 200 votes, which triggered a mandatory manual recount that began Wednesday of the almost 2.9 million ballots cast in the race. And in Georgia, first-term Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss is trying to hold off Democratic challenger Jim Martin in a runoff vote to be held Dec. 2.
The two races will determine whether the Democrats can build a filibuster-proof majority of 60 in the Senate.
A political battle also is brewing for the Republican National Committee chairmanship, though party officials said Thursday that no candidate has emerged as the clear front-runner.
“If I had to pick the two top contenders, I’d say they would be [former Maryland Lt. Gov.] Michael Steele and [present RNC chairman] Mike Duncan,” Mr. Carey said. “But it’s possible we could have a chairman, like Duncan, who is the party builder and a general chairman who is the GOP’s salesman.”
• S.A. Miller and Tom LoBianco contributed to this report.