"Alaskans do not like outsiders coming in," Democratic Sen. Mark Begich says. He is sitting at a conference table in his Senate office, where the desk is decorated with a yellow bumper sticker that reads: "We don't care how they do it in the Lower 48." Begich continues, "'Outsider' in Alaska has a huge capital 'O', underlined and bolded."
Suffice it to say, Begich doesn't pay much attention to "the pundits" who see his seat as a brick in the Republican Party's road back to a Senate majority. Begich is one of a handful of red-state Democratic senators whose terms expire in 2014. Senate candidates rarely outperform presidential approval anymore, and with President Obama losing Alaska by 14 points in 2012, Begich looks ripe for the picking by traditional measures. The number of Democratically-held seats like his up next year imperils Democratic control of the Senate.
But Begich will be tougher to dislodge than the lopsided presidential results suggest. Republicans will likely come after him on health care, financial legislation, the stimulus and a host of other familiar issues where he stood with his party. Personal financial issues Republicans raised last time could come up again, too. Perhaps most importantly, the GOP candidate likely won't be the target of a federal investigation this time around. But Begich does have some local angles on his side.
First off, Alaskans aren't fond of dismissing their senators. More Alaska senators have lost primaries (three) than have lost general elections (one) in the state's history, and Begich was the challenger who inflicted that lone defeat on the late Republican Sen. Ted Stevens in 2008. Alaska and Hawaii value seniority in their representatives; it helps them bring home much-needed federal funds. Begich knows exactly where he stands in the Senate's seniority rankings -- 65th -- and has already landed a seat on the Appropriations Committee, the first one he lists when pointing out that he's on good panels for taking care of Alaska's needs.
Also, in a state where vast tracts are not covered by a centralized media market and voters maintain an independent streak, the personal touch means a little more and party a little less in campaigns. Otherwise Begich says he couldn't have won last time. "What works is on the ground," Begich said. "They expect to know you. If you don't campaign like that, they will [vote] you out." A trip to the hardware store can easily turn into a public event. "I can go into Home Depot and end up having a miniature town hall," Begich said. "They'll come right up to ask you questions. They expect it."
Part of Begich's argument for reelection will be that, by deploying a similar personal touch in Washington, he is singularly positioned to get things done for Alaska, especially with Democrats in charge. Begich notes how oil and gas development has begun moving forward in the Arctic since he took office. "People said for 30 years that we would not be able to develop the Arctic," Begich said. "We came in with a different approach of how we were going to talk about it, to convince my colleagues as well as a Democratic administration."
"When I ran, I know exactly what they said in the rooms to my face and behind my face," Begich continued. "It was, 'Oh my gosh, a Democratic president and Mark Begich: This is never going to happen.' The end result is we're moving forward. Shell will probably be in the field next year."
Begich said he spends a lot of time cajoling that Democratic president's administration, as well as his Senate colleagues. "The administration probably hears from us more than I think they'd want to," he said. "I think [Interior Secretary Ken] Salazar once said that he thought I had him on speed dial. The truth is, I do."
Identify a big national issue, and Begich drills it down to an Alaska issue. "Almost every issue has an Alaska nexus," Begich said. "And then the poor leadership gets to hear from me on a regular basis, why this is important to Alaska, whatever that little segment is, and if that's not in, don't talk to me." The transportation bill, Begich said, is an example of something that didn't include what Alaska needed. "I was one of 13 people who voted against it when it first came out, because it screwed Alaska. At the end of the day, Alaska was taken care of. We were happy people and so were my constituents. And guess what? Then I voted for the bill."
Begich's agenda for the next two years sounds a lot different than the issues dominating the national discussion: Continuing his work on oil and gas, including revenue sharing for Alaskans like what Louisianans get for oil and gas development in the Gulf of Mexico, and veterans' health care access are at the top of his to-do list. But he sees opportunities to turn at least one of the looming national issues to his benefit.
"With regards to immigration, it's good to see a bipartisan effort moving forward," Begich said, "but we have a specific issue around our fishing industry, J-1 visas, to make sure" gets attention in immigration legislation.
Begich sounds prepared to differentiate himself from other Democrats on guns. "Obviously we're a strong gun rights state, and protecting our rights with regard to that is important," he said. "All of those are important national issues, but I represent Alaska. I've got to make sure issues that are important to my state are taken care of."
Begich's record also contains elements that Republicans will use against him. Begich does not officially have an opponent yet, but whoever runs against him is sure to note that he, like every other Democrat then in the Senate, voted for "Obamacare" in 2010 and gave the president key support on other measures, too. The next two years might hold a few more pitfalls in store, whether on guns or something else.
Plenty of Republicans look eager to pounce. Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell has already formed an exploratory committee for a potential Senate bid, while Gov. Sean Parnell could also consider opposing Begich. Both cleared 50 percent in their respective 2010 primaries and won the general election comfortably, on a single ticket with Parnell at the top.
Several other potential candidates have statewide experience. Republicans' 2010 nominee, Joe Miller, is also considering another tea party-fueled bid. Whoever his opponent, they will try to turn Begich's service in Washington on him. Unlike many senators in the current anti-Washington mood, Begich is prepared to come back with a list of where (and what) he's delivered.
A minute after our time ran out, Begich's staff ushered him to his next appointment. "I don't want to get the chairman of the Appropriations Committee mad at me," he said. In this case, being late would be no mere matter of office politics. That committee slot means a lot for politics back home, too.