Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) is going local in a bid to save his seat in the Senate — and possibly the Democratic majority in the Senate.
After Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Begich is seen as the most vulnerable Senate Democrat running for reelection next year, and Republican chances of winning the six seats needed to retake the Senate would improve substantially if he loses.
To avoid that fate, the Alaskan is highlighting his support for the state's fishing, and oil and gas industries, and work on military and native issues.
“We're going to work on veterans issues, oil and gas, education issues, how to make sure small business is taken care of,” Begich tells The Hill. “There's this constant effort to push back in a way that makes the federal government understand us.”
The GOP sees Begich as beatable because he defeated longtime Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) by just 3,000 votes in 2008, even though Stevens was facing federal indictment at the time. Alaska hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president since 1964, and President Obama won just 41 percent of the vote there in 2012.
He also voted for ObamaCare, which Republicans believe will lead to his defeat.
“Mark Begich can attempt to run and hide from his record all he wants, but the truth remains that Begich serves on Barack Obama and Harry Reid’s liberal leadership team and was the deciding vote for ObamaCare,” says National Republican Senatorial Committee spokeswoman Brook Hougesen.
To combat that argument, Begich emphasizes issues where he diverges from national Democrats.
He voted against tougher background checks on gun purchases and wants to open up Alaska to more offshore drilling.
Begich is also noting the work he’s done with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who won a difficult reelection campaign in 2012 as a write-in candidate, by touting her work for Alaska. The two senators are working to keep the military from moving F-16s out of Fairbanks.
Begich also succeeded in getting the Department of Veterans Affairs to allow Alaska veterans to get treated at hospitals on reservations rather than have to fly to Anchorage or as far as Seattle for treatment.
While all politicians facing difficult reelection prospects say they’ll win by focusing on the local issues their constituents really care about, there might be more truth to it in Alaska.
“Alaska politics are different — the politics are a lot more upfront and personal than other states … and our politics are largely based on natural resource extraction issues,” said University of Alaska-Fairbanks professor Gerald McBeath.
McBeath thinks Begich is “looking good right now” because of his focus on state issues.
“It's rare when a national issue dominates in an Alaska federal or state race, and you can't say that about politics in Ohio,” he said.
Begich could also benefit from a GOP primary.
Alaska Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell (R) is in the race and polls just a few points behind Begich in most surveys but has struggled with fundraising.
Alaska Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan (R) is expected to run, but is currently serving with his Marine unit in Afghanistan.
Tea Party favorite and 2010 Senate nominee Joe Miller (R) is also running, but polls show he'd be the weakest GOP candidate against Begich.
Speaking to a reporter, Begich rattles off the unique qualities of the state.
Four-fifths of Alaska isn’t accessible by car. The state has a huge military population and large communities of both Native Americans and Inuit.
He also cites the fights he’s had to keep Alaska from being ignored, in which his sparring partners have included President Obama's chief of staff Dennis McDonough, Verizon Wireless and Domino’s Pizza.
During a discussion with McDonough on small business, Begich said the chief of staff was “missing the boat” in terms of how things operate in more rural states. He’s also battled the White House on what he calls “ocean zoning,” a push against increasing regulations on fishing vessels that many East Coast Democrats support.
He’s written letters to AT&T and Verizon to complain that they keep forgetting about his state.
“There are all these maps of America that don't have Alaska or Hawaii, and a lot of times, they write back to me saying they apologize,” he said.
“AT&T now has a new map, Verizon now has Alaska in their new ads,” he said with a touch of pride.
Begich took on Domino’s when the pizza company ran ads joking that “nobody comes up with a world-changing idea over halibut.”
The senator chose to take that as an insult to Alaska’s fishing industry, and on Thursday, sent a letter — and 2-and-a-half pounds of the fish caught off Alaska's coast — to the company's CEO with a note asking why the company is “hatin' on our halibut.”