During an election year in which Democrats and Republicans are in a bare-knuckled fight to gain seats in Congress, Hawaii Democrat Daniel K. Inouye is traveling far and wide to work for a fellow senator’s reelection.
But the colleague Inouye is trying to help is a Republican, Ted Stevens of Alaska.
Stevens, who has been indicted on corruption charges, has become a top Democratic target in a race that could be crucial to the party’s hopes of securing a filibuster-proof majority.
But that hasn’t stopped Inouye from putting his decades-long friendship with Stevens ahead of party loyalty, an unusual act in a Senate that has become bitterly partisan.
Inouye has traveled to Alaska to campaign for Stevens. He has contributed $10,000 from his political action committee to Stevens’ campaign. And he has appeared as a “special guest” at a Washington fundraiser for Stevens.
“I want my partner to go back to Washington,” Inouye said during a recent campaign appearance for Stevens in Alaska. “Our parties don’t understand . . . but there are things that are more important than political considerations. And that’s friendship.”
So far, Inouye’s support for Stevens has not elicited the Democratic ire that greeted Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), the Democrats’ 2000 vice presidential candidate, when he began campaigning for Republican presidential candidate John McCain.
Not that it would deter Inouye.
“We call each other brothers,” Inouye said during a Senate tribute to Stevens last year, when he became the longest-serving Republican senator.
The two have much in common. Both are 84. Both represent the newest states, and the only noncontiguous ones. They have sat next to each other for years on the Defense Appropriations Committee, rotating as chairman and ranking member, depending on whose party holds the majority.
Inouye lost his right arm during World War II while fighting with the Japanese American 442nd Regiment in Italy. Stevens is also a decorated veteran of that war, having flown missions for the Flying Tigers in China.
Another bond they share, Inouye said jokingly but with pride: “He and I have received the crown of being ‘pork men of the year.’ ” Alaska and Hawaii are No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in per capita pork-barrel spending for 2008, according to the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste.
Inouye is low-key while Stevens is often cranky and hot-tempered, but both are old bulls whose Senate service together dates to a different, more collegial era. Inouye was elected in 1962; Stevens was appointed to his seat in 1968.
Both men have lamented the heightened partisan tension in the Senate.
“The aisle between the two sides is now a canyon,” Stevens said last year. “And people on either side accuse me and Dan Inouye of being freaks because we’re friends.”
Democrats hold high hopes of expanding their majority in the Senate, which is split 49-49 but has two independents who usually side with the Democrats. Sixty seats are needed to overcome a filibuster -- the delaying tactic that one party uses to stymie the other. Some Democrats think that threshold is within reach in November.
Stevens is facing the toughest race of his career, after his indictment in July on charges of concealing $250,000 in home renovations and gifts from an oil services firm. His trial opens Monday.
But Inouye is standing by his friend. “In our legal system, a man is presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law,” he said in a statement after the indictment.
Inouye’s Democratic colleagues shrug off his support of Stevens, but some party activists are less understanding.
“There is a difference between bipartisanship and throwing your team under the bus,” Democracy for America, a Vermont-based group, said in an e-mail to members assailing Inouye. “Evidently, building a filibuster-proof majority is not a priority.”
Unlike Lieberman, who angered his Democratic colleagues by delivering a televised speech at the Republican National Convention and attacking Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, Inouye has supported Stevens without discrediting Stevens’ Democratic challenger, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich.
Some Democrats dismiss Inouye’s support of Stevens as less meaningful than Lieberman’s support for McCain. Stevens is the only Republican who has received a contribution this election cycle from Inouye’s PAC, which otherwise has donated $175,000 to fellow Democrats and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Still, Inouye’s support of Stevens appears to be a sensitive issue.
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) declined to comment. Julie Hasquet, a Begich spokeswoman, said Inouye’s support for Stevens was disappointing but not surprising.
“But it’s Alaskans who are losing out,” she said. “Alaska families deserve a senator who has more than one friend across the aisle.”
Burdett Loomis, a University of Kansas political science professor who edited a book about disintegrating civility in the Senate, said Inouye’s support of Stevens was a “throwback to the old-boy civility of the ‘inner club’ Senate.”
“The norm has been for senators to stay out of races more than to cross over,” Loomis said. But when then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) took the unusual step in 2004 of traveling to South Dakota to aid the ultimately successful GOP campaign to unseat then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), “you saw even the breakdown of that norm,” he said.
Inouye, who won reelection in 2004 with 75% of the vote, is unlikely to be hurt by his support for Stevens, said Jon Goldberg-Hiller, chairman of the political science department at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
“It is well known here that Inouye and Stevens are personal friends and that they have worked together on many issues, some of which have sometimes angered some constituents,” he said, citing Inouye’s support for opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil drilling, a Stevens priority.
“Nonetheless,” Goldberg-Hiller said, “Inouye has long perpetuated the common cultural belief here that, despite divergent party politics, Hawaii and Alaska may have more to gain by being mutually supportive than by competing.”