On my daily commute through midtown Anchorage, I drive by nearly a dozen large Dan Sullivan signs—lodged in fireweed or propped near strip malls. Most of the signs are blue and green, and feature a globe with Alaska as the only land mass. The rest belong to the likely Republican nominee for U.S. Senate.
Yes, there are two people named Dan Sullivan running for statewide office in Alaska this year. The one with the blue-and-green signs is the mayor of Anchorage and is running for lieutenant governor. The other is running in a race that could potentially determine the balance of power in Washington.
The Dan Sullivan hoping to make it to the Senate screams "dream candidate." A Harvard-educated Marine, with steely looks and a beautiful family to boot, he is, many in the GOP establishment seem to think, the party's best hope of knocking off Democratic Sen. Mark Begich this November. In the run-up to the Aug. 19 primary—in which Sullivan is facing two other Republicans—Karl Rove's American Crossroads super PAC has lent him support, George W. Bush has personally donated to his campaign, and Condoleezza Rice has made an ad appearance on his behalf.
But Dan Sullivan the Senate candidate isn't as well-known as the other Dan Sullivan because, before this year, he had never run for office and had lived in Alaska full time only since 2009. In Alaska, he is known as "Commissioner Dan" or "DNR Dan" (he was commissioner of Alaska's Department of Natural Resources) as well as "Afghan Dan" (due to his military service in Afghanistan); he is also occasionally called "Ohio Dan" by his opponents (he was raised in suburban Cleveland).
Mayor Dan Sullivan—known conveniently as "Mayor Dan"—is also a Republican, but he is completely unlike Commissioner Dan. He's scrappy; he looks and sometimes acts like Steve Carell's character in The Office. Since declaring his candidacy for lieutenant governor, he has compared union dues to slavery and suggested he would invade the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drill for oil, even if it meant "martyrdom" at the hands of the feds. During his two terms as mayor, he's endeared himself to conservatives by trying to shrink municipal government and antagonized labor by dismantling collective-bargaining rules.
Not surprisingly, Alaskans have been getting the two Dan Sullivans mixed up. A lot. "Well, let's put it this way: Three months ago, there was mass confusion," says Marc Hellenthal, a Republican pollster based in Anchorage. "We did a poll this spring, and Dan Sullivan Commissioner and Dan Sullivan Mayor had almost exactly the same name ID. If you've been in my business, you know that commissioners are not household names. I'd bet you that 90 percent of registered voters in the state of Alaska couldn't name two." (Commissioner Dan had begun advertising at that point, but probably not enough for his name recognition to legitimately be as high as Mayor Dan's.)
Hellenthal thinks the name mess may have actually worked in Commissioner Dan's favor, by making him appear better known than he was. And the association won't hurt him in the primary, because the mayor he could be confused with is popular with Republicans. But, Hellenthal notes, the confusion could be a minor drag for Commissioner Dan if he makes it to November—because a controversial labor law championed by Mayor Dan is scheduled to be up for referendum.
When Rasmussen Reports and Magellan Strategies have polled the state and found Commissioner Dan leading, they haven't identified which Dan Sullivan they're asking about. Last year, when Public Policy Polling surveyed Alaskans on the Senate race, the number of people who were "not sure" how they felt about Dan Sullivan jumped 12 points when the title of commissioner was used. (PPP subsequently hasn't used the title, and the numbers have gone down as the campaign has intensified.)
In May, Mayor Dan commissioned a poll from an Anchorage firm called Dittman Research to figure out just how bad the confusion was. On top of asking likely primary voters if they were supporting Sullivan for lieutenant governor, pollsters asked if they could identify which Sullivan was running for the job. "Forty percent got it wrong or were not sure enough to tell us who that Dan Sullivan was," says Matt Larkin of Dittman Research. "And these are primary super voters. These are people who had voted in up to four out of four primary elections."
In the primary, Senate Dan has two rivals. Joe Miller, who won the 2010 primary as a tea-party candidate, is running again, but Sullivan's closest competitor is Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell—the other establishment guy in the race. While outside polls give Sullivan a solid lead, Dittman puts Treadwell within 2 points; Hellenthal found him to be within 4.
"It's a bit of game of musical chairs," Treadwell tells me. "I'm the lieutenant governor running for Senate. The commissioner named Sullivan is running for Senate. And the mayor named Sullivan is running for lieutenant governor."
Treadwell has encountered the name confusion on the campaign trail: "I introduced myself to someone at a pancake breakfast just a while back, and they said, 'Oh, you're running against the mayor?' I said, 'I'm running against the commissioner. He hasn't been here as long.' " Mostly, it's been a source of amusement for Treadwell's campaign. His staffers have become fans of The Distinguished Gentleman, a film in which a con man with the same name as a dead congressman gets elected using the slogan, "The name you know." "I haven't watched the Eddie Murphy movie," Treadwell says, "but I'll tell ya, it gets quoted here fairly often."
Treadwell himself can relate to the mistaken-identity problem. A popular documentary, Grizzly Man, told the story of an animal-rights activist named Timothy Treadwell who was killed by a bear in Alaska. "My joke about name recognition," says the lieutenant governor, "was that I have a father and a son named Tim Treadwell, but I have no relationship to the guy who was eaten by a bear."
"It's a bit of game of musical chairs"
Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell
Begich's campaign also takes the name confusion lightly, even as it keeps tabs on the issue. Staffers have made note of when the rare Dan Sullivan who isn't running for office expresses support, cracking that they may need to start a "Dan Sullivans for Mark Begich" committee. They also track when a media outlet accidentally uses a photo of Mayor Dan instead of Commissioner Dan, or identifies Commissioner Dan incorrectly with the title of mayor.
The only one who doesn't seem to be amused by the situation is the Sullivan for U.S. Senate team. Campaign manager Ben Sparks believes there's "no question" that his Dan is the more recognizable one. After all, the campaign has raised over $3 million, and a lot of that money has gone to media buys. That's not even counting the millions being spent by super PACs. "Just about any voter out there has seen an ad on TV about Dan and knows who he is," says Sparks. "As soon as we kicked our campaign into high gear, the concern about having two candidates with the same name on the same ballot virtually disappeared."
For his part, Mayor Dan agrees that the ads are making a difference. If he faced any real opposition for the lieutenant-governor nomination, and if his name didn't get hitched to the incumbent governor's ticket in November, he'd be a little worried that the attack ads running against the Senate candidate would rub off on him. But he is seeking a mostly ceremonial office that has nothing to do with the balance of the U.S. Senate, and he can afford to take a lighthearted view. "We talk about sending him a bill for $100,000 for using my name for campaign purposes," Mayor Dan says on his way to a campaign stop in Fairbanks. "But so far, no check has come."
Alexandra Gutierrez is a reporter in Alaska.
This article appears in the August 2, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as Two Candidates, Same Name.