Can abortion rights push pay off in Alaska?

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Sen. Mark Begich (D) might be vulnerable this election cycle, but he's not apologizing for his liberal stance on abortion.

With little attention from the national media, the Alaska Democrat has launched a full-court press on abortion rights and women's health issues in an effort to woo centrist female voters.

From ads to bill co-sponsorships to campaign appearances, it's a high-stakes political bet in an election year when Republicans are favored to win the Senate.

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But Begich's team argues that the strategy will reap dividends, arguing that Alaska women are typically less conservative on social issues than their peers in other red states.

"Outside groups and Washington, D.C., pundits don't know Alaska, and it shows," said Susanne Fleek-Green, Begich’s campaign manager, blasting skeptics.  

"We’re proud to say Mark Begich is the only candidate who believes Alaska women deserve access to birth control, equal pay for equal work and the right to make their own decisions about their healthcare."

It is hard to find a vulnerable red-state Democrat in 2014 who is not only embracing abortion rights as a core part of their campaign agenda but also taking the fight to Republicans — one reason Begich's political gamble stands out.

Most of Begich’s endangered peers hail from the South and benefit by treading lightly on social issues like abortion. But Democrats say that, in other Western states, Republicans and independent voters have a more libertarian streak that could make Begich’s strategy a savvy one.

His proud stance has already prompted attacks from the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), which said Begich is too "extreme" for the state most Americans associate with former Gov. Sarah Palin (R).

"Democrat Mark Begich is so far outside the mainstream that, not only is he comfortable with late-term abortion, he's actively politicizing it and using the issue to raise political cash," said NRSC spokeswoman Brook Hougesen. "Begich’s extreme position puts him deeply at odds with most women.”

The NRSC pointed to Begich's 2013 comment to a reporter that he would oppose a late-term abortion ban if it came to the Senate floor.

"Yes," Begich said when asked by the Weekly Standard if he would vote against the measure. "I'm pro-choice."

That is not the only legislative view that has spurred criticism from Republicans.

Begich loudly supported a July bill from Senate Democrats to reverse the Supreme Court's recent Hobby Lobby decision.

He followed that move by backing a separate measure to ensure pharmacists cannot refuse to fill birth control prescriptions.

But the most dramatic of all was his choice to sign onto legislation that would nullify virtually all state-level restrictions on abortion.

The Women's Health Protection Act from Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) has been painted by the GOP as the most sweeping pro-abortion bill ever introduced in the Senate.

Democrats see the measure as essential to end medically unnecessary regulations they believe are designed simply to limit abortion access.

These moves by Begich have gone largely unnoticed in the media and are just starting to pick up steam in Republican messaging. Even his recent campaign stops with Planned Parenthood Action Fund President Cecile Richards failed to make many headlines.

Democratic campaign officials see this as a sign that the all-in strategy on abortion will pan out just fine and say internal polling backs them up.

"I can see why any armchair commentator in Washington might look at this and say, 'That won't work in Alaska,' " said one source with Begich's campaign. "I can see why folks might say that if they're a couple thousand miles away. But this is where the majority of Alaskans are."

Democrats also see a precedent in Montana, where Richards held several campaign events with Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) in 2012. Tester later won a tough reelection battle by four points with help from women voters, despite being painted as one of the cycle's most endangered incumbents.

National Republicans, on the other hand, pointed to national polls showing that a majority of women support banning abortion at 20 weeks and said the issue would come back to haunt Begich.

There's some interesting history at play in Alaska, which, like other Western states, can be unpredictable when it comes to social issues.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) famously voted for and then backed away from a 2012 GOP amendment allowing employers to opt out of covering birth control on religious groups.

Reports indicated her change of heart took place after Alaska women berated her for the vote.

"I have never had a vote I've taken, where I have felt that I let down more people that believed in me," the Republican told the Anchorage Daily News at the time.  

Murkowski also recently sided with Democrats on a bill to reverse the Hobby Lobby decision, another notable move.

The debate is expected to intensify after Tuesday's Alaska Republican primary between former state Attorney General Dan Sullivan, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and 2010 Senate nominee Joe Miller.

Sullivan, who identifies himself as "pro-life," is expected to nab the nomination. His campaign website states, "life begins at conception and we must fight to protect the lives of the unborn," though he has reportedly dodged questions about fetal personhood.

Planned Parenthood Action Fund is planning to jump in immediately after the primary with a digital ad buy, and on the other side, national Republicans are expected to ramp up their messaging on abortion.