The GOP establishment favorite Dan Sullivan appears to be on the cusp of victory in Alaska heading into the final key Senate primary of 2014.
While Sullivan, the state’s former natural resources commissioner and attorney general, is the favorite to face Sen. Mark BegichMark BegichSenate GOP deeply concerned over Trump effect Ex-Sen. Kay Hagan joins lobby firm Unable to ban Internet gambling, lawmakers try for moratorium MORE (D), Alaska’s notoriously unpredictable electorate injects a note of intrigue to the race.
Sullivan has run a much better funded and better organized campaign than 2010 Senate nominee Joe Miller (R) and Alaska Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell (R). Strategists believe he’ll hold on, despite strong attacks from Begich allies designed to hurt him in both the primary and general elections. But the state is notoriously difficult to poll accurately and even harder to predict.
The winner will face Begich in a race crucial for Senate control, and strategists in both parties predict a close race this November.
There has been little nonpartisan polling of the primary, and pollsters often miss the mark by a wide margin in Alaska because of the difficulty to reach the right mix of voters in the expansive, isolated state. The few nonpartisan public polls of the primary from the last month have had Sullivan ahead by anywhere from 6-14 points. Sullivan’s campaign recently released a poll that had him with a 17-point lead, up from 8 points a week earlier.
But the campaign’s recent actions signal that the race might be a bit tighter than that. Sullivan has been sending direct mail attacking Treadwell, and outside groups backing the front-runner — including American Crossroads, the Club for Growth and the Chamber of Commerce — have been on TV and radio warning that Begich has been trying to “meddle” in order to stop Sullivan because he’s the strongest general election candidate.
"We are feeling confident heading into Tuesday's election," said Sullivan spokesman Mike Anderson. "Dan Sullivan is the only conservative candidate with the record, grassroots operation and resources to defeat Mark Begich and retire Harry Reid as the Senate Majority Leader this November."
Begich and his allies have broadened their attack from just Sullivan to include Treadwell in recent weeks, a sign they think the race has tightened and are seeking to elevate Miller, a candidate both parties say is fatally flawed for the general election.
“I think Sullivan will win this cleanly. But Miller is going to take second, and I think he might actually come pretty close,” Art Hackney, an Alaska Republican strategist who’s running a pro-Sullivan super-PAC, told The Hill.
Sullivan has been fighting a two-front war for months now, looking to shore up his GOP base while also fending off attacks from Begich and his allies.
The pro-Begich Put Alaska First super-PAC attacked Sullivan for months on his Ohio roots, seeking to define him as an outsider. More recently, they’ve gone after Sullivan for land resource reforms he backed as state attorney general, accusing him of trying to “give government more power over our land and water.” The group has spent approximately $4 million driving up Sullivan’s negatives, about the same amount Republicans have spent to hurt Begich.
Some Republicans concede those attacks have done Sullivan some damage.
“Sullivan will win the primary, but he's certainly been bloodied by the independent expenditure group that's attacked him,” said Alaska-based Republican pollster Marc Hellenthal, who’s not aligned with any of the candidates.
“Sullivan's campaign hasn't defined him well; it allowed his opponents to define him,” said Hackney, who runs the pro-Sullivan super-PAC. “I think he's a remarkable individual, and I expect him to be highly competitive [in the general election], but there's a lot of ground to be made up at this point. They have to win back ground that they lost.”
There has been scant public polling of the general election. The only one from the last month, an automated survey from Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, had Begich up by 6 points. Both sides predict a tight race, though Democrats seem a bit more confident about their position.
Begich’s campaign says he’s in good shape no matter the opponent, though his allies are crossing their fingers for Miller.
“No matter who wins the primary, Mark Begich is ready to put his record of delivering results, traveling the state to listen to Alaskans and fighting for Alaska up against his opponent,” said Begich spokesman Max Croes.
Miller has rolled out some last-minute endorsements to try to generate the same type of base enthusiasm that fueled his surprise 2010 primary victory over Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa MurkowskiKerry visits Arctic Circle to see climate impacts Senate panel clears EPA spending bill, blocking rules Momentum slows for major energy bill MORE (R) — former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) endorsed him on Friday and recorded a robocall for the campaign, while former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) endorsed him on Sunday.
“In 2010, people predicted Lisa Murkowski was going to win based on the polling too,” Miller spokesman Randy DeSoto told The Hill. “We feel good; we feel momentum is definitely in our direction, and we've really felt that in the last week or so. The endorsements have added energy to that.”
Miller pledged to back the nominee no matter who wins in a debate Thursday, a relief for Republicans who’d worried he might run as a third-party candidate and split conservatives.
“At this point, I'm very pleased to know that all three candidates have pledged to support to the eventual winner,” Alaska Republican Party Chairman Peter Goldberg told The Hill.
Treadwell maintains a base of support in the state, too, but by nearly all accounts, he has run a lackluster campaign that has cost him much of a chance at the nomination.
The early establishment favorite, he fizzled in fundraising, lost a number of top staff earlier this year and has been using friends and volunteers to run his campaign after blowing through nearly $1 million on overhead rather than voter outreach. He hasn’t been on TV for weeks, and many think he’ll finish behind Miller in the race. A late endorsement from former astronaut Buzz Aldrin is unlikely to amount to a surge.
“Treadwell was a no-show at the end. He didn't close out his campaign at all,” said Hellenthal, the GOP pollster. “It's been amateur hour.”
The lieutenant governor pointed to a handful of unscientific online polls, and one straw poll from a state fair to argue he’s still in strong shape.
“We’re at a fast gallop,” Treadwell said in a statement. “Bottom line, I am deeply moved by the overwhelming support we’re receiving from Alaskans from all over the Last Frontier. Our fiscally conservative, pro-life message of more freedom and bringing decision-making home is resonating.”
Most Alaska Republicans believe Sullivan will win on Tuesday night, setting up a marquee general election match-up. But polls and predictions have been wrong in the state before.
“Things can turn on a dime with something like this. I hate to make a prediction,” said one unaligned Republican strategist.