The 2014 Senate race in Alaska is one of the Senate contests popping early, as Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell (R) last week announced he was forming an exploratory committee for a potential run against Democratic Sen. Mark Begich.
Begich, running for his second term in the red state, comes up on just about every list of vulnerable senators up in 2014, and a number of Republicans are expected to throw in their hats. But Begich, whose campaign website banner proclaims he is "as independent as Alaska," looks relatively well-positioned for the challenge.
Alaska GOP consultant Andrew Halcro thinks Republicans are underestimating Begich's chances due to the state's red hue. Halcro said Begich has been "solid on all Alaska issues." Begich has worked on developing the state's resources and opening up drilling (though Halcro pointed to Begich's support for the Affordable Care Act as his one possible "Achilles heel" vote).
Still, while Begich shouldn't be underestimated, Alaska's GOP lean certainly makes him a target. Just how big a target will likely depend on who wins the Republican primary.
Treadwell, who made an early entrance to the race, could be a strong opponent. He is considered a somewhat moderate Republican, though he is socially conservative. Another Republican whose name comes up in conversations with Alaska sources is Gov. Sean Parnell -- but it seems unlikely that both he and Treadwell will run, and Alaska political observers say he enjoys his current role. After Treadwell's announcement, he said he had "no interest" in running against the governor. Parnell, for his part, intends to make his plans clear after the next legislative session.
The other frequently mentioned Republican is Joe Miller, the GOP Senate nominee from 2010. Miller, who ran with tea party support (and the support of the Palins), beat GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the 2010 primary before losing to her when she ran as a write-in candidate in the general election.
Miller is making calls about another Senate bid, and has not yet signaled whether he'll run. But he published a post on his website (written by someone named Matt Johnson, identified as a freelance writer, consultant, and political activist) after Treadwell's announcement attacking the LG on having the "wrong ideas," including belief in global warming.
"Yeah, Treadwell is the anointed candidate of the Republican establishment," he writes. "So was Romney. How'd that work out for us?"
After his huge upset of Murkowski in the primary, Miller stumbled during the general election, generating a series of embarrassing headlines. He is often mentioned in the same sentence as Nevada's Sharron Angle and Delaware's Christine O'Donnell as tea party candidates that proved not to be viable general election contenders. Still, that doesn't mean he can't win in a closed Republican primary.
Another name being tossed around as a potential Republican candidate is Loren Leman, the state's former lieutenant governor. who remains popular with the GOP base.
One other factor worth noting as the race gears up: Alaska is undoubtedly still a red state, but as the New York Times' Nate Silver pointed out this week, President Obama lost it by 14 points rather than the 22 points he lost by in 2008. Yes, Sarah Palin was on the ballot in 2008, but Al Gore also lost the state by 31 points back in 2000. Among other factors, Silver notes that Alaska is getting a substantial population influx from liberal states like California, Washington, and Oregon. It may not be enough for Democrats to win on the presidential level in the near future, but won't hurt Begich in his reelection bid.