All week, pundits have been assuming that Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens miraculously survived his re-election bid. No one knew how he did it.

We're starting to get an answer: He actually didn't survive the race. Alaska is big and weird and it takes ages to count early ballots from close races, and the state counted 53,000 ballots yesterday that put Democrat Mark Begich in the lead.

Mark Begich (D) - 132,196
Ted Stevens (R) - 131,382
Bob Bird (AI) - 11,315
Fredrick Haase (Lib) - 2086
Others - 1858

Markos "Daily Kos" Moulitsas, who's been following the numbers closely, claims that the remaining ballots come from Democratic-leaning districts. Nate "538" Silver has more. If Begich even builds a 0.51 percent lead over Stevens (he's at a 0.29 percent lead now), he escapes a recount and takes over the seat. This would, among other things, close Sarah Palin's escape hatch out of Alaskan politics. It would also lock down 58 Democratic Senate seats (counting Joe Lieberman), with the Minnesota Senate race looking better for them every day. (Democrat Al Franken has gained hundreds of votes as the state recounts ballots, and the Republicans have shown their panic with lawsuits and op-eds trying to cast doubt on the count.)

UPDATE: From the Anchorage Daily News:

Republican Party of Alaska Chairman Randy Ruedrich wasn't giving up hope for Stevens, saying Begich's advantage could lessen as the state finishes counting the early votes.

He said remaining mail-in absentee votes "should be much more favorable to Republicans" than the ones counted so far.

But state Democratic Party spokeswoman Bethany Lesser said Begich workers are cautiously optimistic the lead would hold. She noted that the election district based in Nome, which covers Northern and Western Alaska, has not counted any of its absentee ballots yet. Begich beat Stevens in that area on Election Day, just as he did throughout Bush Alaska, a traditional Stevens stronghold that relies on federal appropriations.

Begich also won the voting on all four of Alaska's military installations on Election Day. That makes the Begich campaign optimistic about overseas absentee ballots from service members.