Sen. Begich faces tough reelection challenge in GOP-friendly Alaska

Greg Nash

Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) defied political odds to get to Washington, but can he do it again while facing even more inhospitable terrain? 

That’s the hope of Democrats who privately say that, among the quartet of their most endangered red-state incumbents, they feel best about the Alaska senator. 

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Republicans aren’t shirking from the challenge. It increasingly looks like they’ll get a strong nominee in former state Attorney General Dan Sullivan (R), even though the late August GOP primary leaves plenty of uncertainty. 

Among the GOP’s biggest worries hanging over the race: Even if Sullivan does advance, 2010 Senate nominee Joe Miller (R) isn’t ruling out running as a third-party candidate if he loses to Sullivan, siphoning off critical votes in the general election.

 

Alaska roots

Begich’s roots run deep in the state. The lifelong Alaskan, whose father, Nick, was a former congressman who tragically perished in a plane crash, has framed himself as a fighter for Alaska and a bulwark against federal government overreach. His ads, highly praised by Democrats, have focused on projects he’s helped bring to the state — and his fights with the federal government to help increase oil and gas production.

Even Republicans acknowledge that he’s running a terrific race.

“Begich has run a great campaign,” said one unaligned Alaska GOP strategist. 

“As a political candidate, he’s extremely skilled. He has a fairly aggressive schedule, gets to everything he can, and as a candidate, he’s very good. ... He’s going to be tough.”

But Democrats admit the state’s deep antipathy for President Obama and distrust of the federal government, which plays an outsized role in Alaskans’ daily lives, presents a tough challenge even for someone as skilled Begich.

“Without a third-party candidate to siphon away from Sullivan, the math is just simply difficult. That’s what keeps everybody up,” one Alaska Democratic strategist said. “The math is hard, and national Democrats’ numbers are a drag, and voters’ antsiness of wanting a change worries me.”

Begich is doing everything he can to put distance between himself and the national party. One of his first ads featured the senator barreling across the frozen Arctic Ocean on a snow machine, saying he forced national Democrats to allow oil drilling in the area. 

The incumbent argues he knows how to win despite his partisan affiliation.

“Every race I’ve run, people told me I couldn’t win,” Begich told The Hill. “I make it clear, I disagree with Obama on gun rights, on oil and gas, when he tried to close down the F16s in Fairbanks, when he didn’t treat the Alaskan Native community right on healthcare. I held up a nominee when I disagreed with him on mining.”

Begich says he knows the GOP is trying to make the race about Obama but argues strategists from the Lower 48 don’t get the unique state.

“I get that he’s going to try to nationalize it, use these bumper stickers. But Alaskans want to know details,” he said about Sullivan. “At the end of the day, what Alaskans want to know is, what have you done, what are you going to do. And I work across party lines to get results for Alaska.”

 

Sullivan’s big money, big target

Even though Sullivan jumped into the race late, he came armed with a long resume — former Alaska attorney general and Department of Natural Resources commissioner, Marine reservist and Bush administration alum. His background helped him get off to a huge fundraising start, thanks in part to his national connections — including a friendship with Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a vice chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

The GOP now sees Sullivan as the undisputed front-runner over Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell (R). The state’s No. 2 Republican was forced to reorganize his campaign staff after months of weak fundraising. Alaska is notoriously hard to poll accurately, but in most surveys, Sullivan has had a large single-digit lead.

“Sullivan’s clearly up in the fundraising category, there’s no doubt about that,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who is neutral in the primary. “But it’s still early for us; Aug. 19 is still a long ways away. It’s still very much up in the air.”

Republicans in the state say it’s too early to definitively call the race, but many say the momentum is on Sullivan’s side.

Alaska Democrats privately acknowledge that the front-runner is impressive.

“Sullivan is a good candidate. Of all the candidates they could have gotten, he’s strong. He’s not crazy; he’s not Joe Miller; he’s not going to say anything truly off-script. He’s very likable and presentable; he’s very mainstream,” one said.

While Begich has run mostly positive ads, a super-PAC backing him, Put Alaska First, has been lambasting Sullivan for not having deep ties to the state, hoping to weaken him ahead of the primary. Sullivan was brought up in Ohio, moved to Alaska in the 1990s after marrying his Alaska Native wife and spent much of the 2000s in the Washington, D.C., area serving in the military and working in the Bush administration.

“Clearly, the Democrats have chosen the candidate they do not want to face in the fall, and that’s me,” Sullivan told The Hill. “I married here 20 years ago, married into an amazing Alaska family, my wife was born here, my girls were born here, and the only time I left the state since is to serve my country after the terror attacks of 9/11.”

There are signs, though, that those ads are taking a toll. Sullivan recently offered Begich a cease-fire on outside spending modeled on the compromise in the 2012 Massachusetts Senate race. Begich immediately shot it down, a sign he sees the ads playing to his advantage.

Spending on air has been fairly even on both sides, unlike in many other states, where conservative outside groups have dominated the airwaves. But with $20 million in airtime spent or reserved between both sides, the air war will reach levels never before seen in lightly populated Alaska.

 

The Joe Miller question

Ever since he toppled Murkowski in 2010 — but lost to her write-in bid that November — Miller has been the thorn in the state GOP’s side they wish would go away. 

Now, Alaska Republicans are very worried about what Miller decides to do if, as expected, he falls short in his primary. Miller has a small but fiercely devoted base, and if he can convince one of the other third parties to nominate him — a real possibility, as one of his allies is running for the libertarian nomination and could ask for him to step in — he could take that base with him and away from the GOP nominee.

“The desire here is to have a Republican win this Senate seat and to oust Sen. Begich. And if you come in as a third-party and effectively as a spoiler, that certainly enhances Sen. Begich’s opportunity,” said Murkowski of her old foe. 

Miller called the possibility a distraction — but pointedly refused to rule it out as an option in an interview with The Hill.

“We’re not making commitments with those who divided the Republican Party in 2010,” he said, noting that Treadwell and Sullivan had backed Murkowski against him. “You’re asking me to make a commitment vicariously to my two opponents, and I’ve already explained why I’m not going to do it.”

Privately, Republicans are even more concerned. 

“All of this is going to really come down to what Joe Miller does following the primary,” said one. “That’s how Republicans lose in a statewide election — they split the vote, or there’s a terribly flawed candidate. If Miller were to jump in as a libertarian, that becomes a path to victory for Sen. Begich.”

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