Alaska Senate nominee Dan Sullivan (R) is moving toward conquering the Last Frontier.
The Republican has surged to a lead against Sen. Mark BegichMark BegichThe future of the Arctic 2016’s battle for the Senate: A shifting map Trump campaign left out of Alaska voter guide MORE (D) in recent polls in the race that’s likely to be critical to the balance of Senate power. Though the race is expected to remain close, some Democrats are worried that Begich is playing catch-up in a state where it’s tough to make up ground for their party.
Sullivan— a Marine reservist and former Alaska attorney general who served as Department of Natural Resources commissioner—has worked to coalesce the state’s fractured Republican Party ever since he won the mid-August primary.
Begich has remained mostly stagnant in the polls. While Democrats have hit the GOP nominee over residency issues and tried to paint him as too extreme on social issues, Sullivan and his deep-pocketed allies have been able to fire back.
Now, the Democratic incumbent seems to be scrambling to find new ways to knock Sullivan off his game after having to abandon planned attacks that backfired in a big way.
Begich’s campaign promised to attack Sullivan’s record early on. But it was forced to pull down an ad accusing Sullivan of letting “sex offenders get off with light sentences” while he was attorney general, including one who is accused of murdering an elderly couple after that couple’s family demanded the ad be taken off the air.
Since then, Begich and Sullivan have fought on the air about whether Sullivan helped save teacher pensions or whether he cut a deal with Wall Street firms that was bad for the state. But the attack Begich’s campaign once believed would be a major focus of the campaign has gone out the window, while he’s still getting criticism over his handling of the sensitive ad.
Begich has turned back to attacks on women’s issues and questioning Sullivan’s ties to Alaska. An Ohio native, Sullivan moved to Alaska in the late 1990s, married his Alaskan Native wife and spent much of the 2000s living in Washington, D.C., while he worked in the White House and State Department and served in the Marines.
Begich’s allies found another way to hit the issue by asking Maryland’s tax assessor whether Sullivan had properly claimed tax breaks for his East Coast home. The assessor said on Tuesday that he was entitled to them because he’d been a Maryland resident during that period, triggering a wave of local coverage in the state.
But those attacks, so far, haven’t done much to halt Sullivan’s rise. Though the state is notoriously hard to poll accurately, he seems to have captured the upper hand in public surveys with a month to go.
A survey shared with The Hill by Republican pollster Marc Hellenthal conducted for a coalition focused on ballot amendments found Sullivan with a lead over Begich, 46 percent to 42 percent.
Dittman Research, a Republican firm that has a strong track record in the state, found Sullivan leading Begich 49 percent to 43 percent in a poll conducted for the pro-Sullivan U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Two recent automated polls also found Sullivan with a lead, though a pair of Democratic polls released in mid-September had Begich up by 5 points.
“Sullivan is asking Alaskans to trust him when he’s been dishonest about his Maryland residency, the source of his money and what he fundamentally believes,” said Begich spokesman Max Croes. “Mark Begich is traveling across the state, talking to Alaskans about his record, standing up for Alaska, defending the Alaskans’ privacy rights, and securing critical investment and development permits to create new jobs.”
In response to Democratic attacks on his positions on women’s issues, Sullivan has rolled out a powerful new surrogate: Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who cut an ad for the GOP nominee.
“The Lisa endorsement is big. She’s popular, she’s seen as the voice of reason by a lot of moderates up here,” said GOP pollster Matt Larkin.
Begich has responded with a pair of positive ads, one featuring his mother and wife and another with a Republican former first lady of Alaska touting his candidacy.
Sullivan and his allies have fought hard to tie Begich to President Obama in a state where nearly two-thirds of voters disapprove of the job he’s doing. Recent attacks have also gone after Begich’s record as
mayor of Anchorage, accusing him of cutting sweetheart deals with public-sector unions that cost taxpayers.
“Our grassroots enthusiasm continues to grow as more and more supporters are joining our campaign to take this seat back for Alaska’s values,” said Sullivan spokesman Mike Anderson. “In contrast, Mark Begich continues to campaign on fear while attempting to shamelessly distort Dan’s record in a desperate attempt to avoid talking about Begich’s own failed record.”
Alaska Democrats admit it’s hard for anyone in their party to find enough voters to win statewide, pointing to a percentage cap in most races in the low forties.
Begich and his allies, however, have outspent Sullivan and his supporters by a margin of 10 to 1 on field operations, with similar advantages in the number of paid staffers and field offices across the state — more than 16 different headquarters to the three that Sullivan’s campaign has. Begich has also proven himself a dogged campaigner, and has been all across the state looking for pockets of persuadable voters, while Alaskans are still getting to know Sullivan.
Democrats are also hopeful that a trio of ballot amendments — “pot, Pebble and pay,” as one Begich ally referred to them — could boost Democratic turnout. Voters will decide whether to legalize marijuana, raise the minimum wage and ban construction of the Pebble Mine, a project despised by Democratic-leaning environmentalists, many Alaska Natives and fishermen.
The recent creation of a “unity ticket” for governor between an independent candidate and the Democratic candidate has made the race much closer, which could provide additional excitement for the Democratic base to turn out. However, polls show most voters have been paying much closer attention to the Senate race.
Democrats privately admit that Sullivan has a small edge right now and will need to scratch and claw to keep things close.
But even Republicans do not underestimate Democrats in the home stretch.
“I expect this to go down to the wire. Unfortunately that favors Begich because he has a better ground game,” said Hellenthal, the GOP pollster. “The Democrats have already knocked on our door four times, and I’m told that’s true throughout Anchorage. Sullivan’s campaign has not hit our door yet.”