How a Pro-Begich PAC Won Freedom From Harry Reid

With a critical Senate race in play, the Put Alaska First PAC wins a rare blessing from Democratic leaders to run its own operation.

ANCHORAGE, AK - JANUARY 18: Senator Mark Begich (D-Alaska) photographed near University Lake in Anchorage, Alaska, on January 18, 2013, in Anchorage, Alaska. Begich faces reelection in 2014. 
National Journal
Andrea Drusch
Aug. 18, 2014, 1:47 a.m.

Long­time Alaska polit­ic­al con­sult­ants Jim Lott­s­feldt and Art Hack­ney may not see eye to eye of­ten, but when it comes to the state’s battle­ground Sen­ate race, they do agree on one thing: Alaska races need to be run by Alaskans.

Both men have been run­ning polit­ic­al cam­paigns in the state for dec­ades, Hack­ney for Re­pub­lic­ans and Lott­s­feldt for can­did­ates on both sides. Now as their home state plays host to one of the premi­er con­tests this cycle, Lott­s­feldt and Hack­ney see the mil­lions of dol­lars pour­ing in­to the state from D.C. groups and think they’re the men to man­age it.

The prob­lem is get­ting these out­side al­lies to hand over the reins.

Lott­s­feldt runs Put Alaska First, the su­per PAC that sup­ports Demo­crat­ic Sen. Mark Be­gich and has re­ceived more than $4.5 mil­lion from the Harry Re­id-backed Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity PAC. In fact, Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity PAC is nearly his only donor. Both Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats agree that Lottfeldt’s ef­forts with Put Alaska First have been for­mid­able. The main tar­get of their at­tacks, Re­pub­lic­an front-run­ner Dan Sul­li­van, has watched his primary lead dwindle to the point where the NR­SC has con­sidered in­ter­ven­ing on his be­half.

But when Lott­s­feldt first presen­ted the idea of es­tab­lish­ing Put Alaska First to the Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity PAC more than a year ago, the re­cep­tion was less than wel­com­ing.

“I de­cided to go ahead and do Put Alaska First, and the Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity PAC folks, who I work very well with, said, ‘No, no, you don’t need to do that””just work for us, you can be our Alaska Sherpa, don’t set up an­oth­er group,’ ” Lott­s­feldt said. “I said, ‘No, I’m set­ting up an­oth­er group, be­cause at the end of the day I’m go­ing to sign off on everything we do be­cause you’re from out of state.’ “

En­trust­ing that kind of sup­port to a loc­al-level group is an an­om­aly for Re­id’s group. In­deed, Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity PAC has act­ively per­suaded its donors not to give to sim­il­ar ef­forts in oth­er states this cycle. Both parties agree that the de­cision to sup­port Lott­s­feldt hinged on his keen know­ledge of Alaskan val­ues, as well as a need to spend wisely in a state with a com­plex pop­u­la­tion dens­ity.

“We don’t have as much money as the Koch broth­ers “¦ so we have to make sure we’re as ef­fect­ive and ef­fi­cient as pos­sible,” said Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity PAC spokes­man Ty Mats­dorf. “Jim has an un­par­alleled know­ledge of the Alaska polit­ic­al land­scape: what plays well there, and what’s im­port­ant to people on the ground.”

Lott­s­feldt also poin­ted to Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity PAC cofounder Re­becca Lambe, who is from the state, sug­gest­ing she knew how im­port­ant au­then­ti­city was in Alaska.

“You can al­ways tell when the D.C. folks are here; all you have to do is look at their shoes,” Lott­s­feldt joked. “When out­side people come up to run cam­paigns “¦ there’s just a lot of re­sent­ment on be­half of the loc­al people. Wheth­er it’s pro­noun­cing Val-deez in­stead of call­ing it Val-dez, or mak­ing sure that we film every ad in Alaska with real Alaskans “¦ my job is to make sure this is groun­ded on Alaska is­sues.”

The au­then­ti­city factor has chal­lenged the groups sup­port­ing Sul­li­van. One of the early Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity ads back­fired when it was re­vealed it was filmed in Mary­land. Oth­ers re­ceived cri­ti­cism from Re­pub­lic­ans in the state for fo­cus­ing too much on na­tion­al is­sues, which they say doesn’t res­on­ate in Alaska. Mean­while, Demo­crats have hammered away at Sul­li­van on hy­per-loc­al top­ics such as an Alaskan land-use bill that was op­posed by hunters and fish­ers.

That dis­con­nect frus­trates Hack­ney, who has been run­ning cam­paigns in the state for more than three dec­ades. Hack­ney is cur­rently ad­vising Amer­ic­an Cross­roads in the state, but says mil­lions of out­side dol­lars are be­ing thrown away by groups that don’t un­der­stand Alaska.

“I’m frus­trated with groups like Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity com­ing in and run­ning the same ads they’d run in oth­er states””that kind of thing doesn’t fly in Alaska,” said Hack­ney. “Neither does bat­ter­ing away with a mil­lion and a half dol­lars talk­ing about a car­bon tax. I know most of the doc­tors, law­yers, and In­di­an chiefs in Alaska and they don’t even think about a car­bon tax.”

So Hack­ney is tak­ing a page out of Lott­s­feldt’s book and start­ing his own su­per PAC called Alaska’s En­ergy, Amer­ica’s Val­ues, to sup­port Sul­li­van. He’s hop­ing that if Sul­li­van is suc­cess­ful in the primary next Tues­day, he can get Re­pub­lic­an donors to give him the same trust Demo­crats have giv­en Lott­s­feldt.

“If it comes out like we’d like it to come out, I ex­pect it will be the equi­val­ent of Put Alaska First,” said Hack­ney. “Alaska’s a pretty unique state, and hav­ing the per­spect­ive of some­body on the ground who’s been do­ing cam­paigns in Alaska for 30-something years is cer­tainly dif­fer­ent that some­body look­ing in from afar and not un­der­stand­ing all of the sub­tleties. Do I think I know bet­ter? Sure.”

For his part, Lott­s­feldt agreed. “I think Art and I see it very sim­il­arly,” he said of the two ef­forts. “Op­er­a­tion­ally, how I’m work­ing with my al­lies seems to be far more ef­fect­ive and stream­lined than what Art has to do with Karl Rove and his side.”

Sev­er­al Re­pub­lic­ans in the state also in­de­pend­ently offered that they thought Hack­ney would do a bet­ter job than the out­side groups. An­chor­age Re­pub­lic­an Wo­men’s Pres­id­ent Jude Eledge cri­ti­cized the ads she’d seen as mis­guided in their mes­sages against Be­gich.

“When you come out of Wash­ing­ton, do you really know what res­on­ates with Alaskans?” she asked. “Be­cause Art does; he has an ab­so­lute tal­ent for this.”

Hack­ney says con­tri­bu­tions to his PAC from out­side groups have been dis­cussed, but he was primar­ily tar­get­ing their donors.

“I’ve nev­er made a pitch to them dir­ectly to put money in, only that fun­ders who give money to them would be well ad­vised to give to an Alaska su­per PAC,” Hack­ney said.

If he’s suc­cess­ful, Hack­ney wants to not only change the change the mes­sage of the at­tacks on Be­gich but also dir­ect out­side money to­ward a ground game, where he feels the Demo­crat and his al­lies have a real ad­vant­age.

“To me it’s a frus­tra­tion of re­sources not be­ing spent as they could. Every­body is rush­ing to come in and throw ads on the air and the com­pet­it­ive ad­vant­age is more on the Be­gich side with the ground game that they have me­tic­u­lously put in place,” Hack­ney said.

Al­though Lott­s­feldt wouldn’t speak to the break­down of Put Alaska First’s spend­ing on TV versus the ground game, but early re­ports on the group’s form­a­tion in­dic­ated that he shared Hack­ney’s views on ded­ic­at­ing his re­sources that dir­ec­tion.

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