Two Candidates, Same Name: The Odd Case of Alaska’s Dan Sullivans

The odd case of Alaska’s Dan Sullivans.

This illustration can only be used with the Alexandra Gutierrez story that ran in the 8/2/2014 magazine. 
National Journal
Alexandra Gutierrez
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Alexandra Gutierrez
Aug. 1, 2014, 1 a.m.

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.

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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.”

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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.

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