ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, the Republican incumbent who was convicted of corruption two weeks ago, fell behind Democratic opponent and Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich in the latest vote tally in their neck-and-neck race.
After counting 60,000 absentee, provisional and early ballots on Wednesday, Begich grabbed an 814-vote lead over Stevens, the U.S. Senate's longest-serving Republican. Stevens had held a 3,257-vote lead after a count of regular ballots cast on Election Day.
There are nearly 40,000 uncounted ballots, with a large portion classified as provisional "questioned" ballots, said Gail Fenumiai, director of Alaska's Division of Elections.
Questioned ballots are those cast on Election Day by voters outside of their home precincts, or by voters who were unsure of their home precincts. Questioned ballots have tended to lean Democratic in Alaska, said Bethany Lesser, spokeswoman for the Alaska Democratic Party.
"We've always been cautiously optimistic," Lesser said.
If Begich maintains his lead, it would be the seventh seat picked up by Democrats in the November 4 election and increase their majority in the 100-member chamber to 58 when the new Congress convenes on January 6.
If Democrats capture Stevens' seat and win two other unresolved Senate races, they would control 60 seats, a majority big enough to pass legislation over Republican procedural hurdles.
Vote counting will resume on Friday. Under Alaska law, the counting must be completed by November 19, Fenumiai said.
Stevens was convicted on October 27 of seven counts of lying on Senate disclosure forms by failing to report more than $250,000 in home improvements and other gifts from an oil executive. He faces up to five years in prison on each count.
Stevens maintains his innocence and plans to appeal.
Even if he were to win, several Republican colleagues have urged him to resign or pledged to expel him from the body if he returns to the Senate.
State Republicans urged supporters to vote for Stevens despite the conviction and the possibility of his ejection from the Senate, setting up an opportunity for a different Republican to take the seat by special election.
The Stevens campaign declined to comment on the count.
Prior to Election Day, Stevens dismissed the idea that his colleagues would expel him and he said he had no plans to resign his seat. He also said he would appeal the verdict.
"I am not going to step down. I have not been convicted of anything. I have got a case pending against me, and probably the worst case of prosecutorial misconduct," Stevens said in an October 30 debate.