Is Alaska’s Senate Race Slipping Away From the GOP?

Thanks to a tougher-than-expected primary and a politically smart incumbent, Republicans are playing catch up in a key Senate battleground. But will the state’s GOP lean ultimately lift them to victory?

National Journal
Alex Roarty
Aug. 20, 2014, 1:14 a.m.

Re­pub­lic­ans landed their can­did­ate of choice in Alaska on Tues­day when Dan Sul­li­van won his primary for Sen­ate. But the GOP should hold off on the cel­eb­ra­tions: So far, Sul­li­van’s vic­tory is one of the few things to go right in the na­tion’s north­ern­most state. 

Alaska was al­ways pegged as one of the Re­pub­lic­an Party’s best pickup op­por­tun­it­ies in 2014, one of sev­en red states that hold the key to re­tak­ing the Sen­ate ma­jor­ity. But plans to take down Demo­crat­ic Sen. Mark Be­gich have been hindered al­most from the get-go, thanks to the in­cum­bent’s polit­ic­al acu­men and an early and fierce bar­rage of at­tacks against Sul­li­van.

“He is dam­aged””there’s no two ways about it,” said Art Hack­ney, an Alaska-based Re­pub­lic­an op­er­at­ive who runs a su­per PAC al­lied with Sul­li­van. “And it’s go­ing to take some re­pair.”

As a res­ult, even as the GOP grows more op­tim­ist­ic about a dozen oth­er races across the midterm map, some of the party’s op­er­at­ives worry that, of all places, bright-red Alaska has quietly slipped away. And it ex­plains why some Demo­crats, nervously eye­ing dif­fi­cult con­tests else­where, now con­sider Alaska a like­li­er hold than some purple states such as Col­or­ado or Iowa.

Re­pub­lic­ans be­lieve that Sul­li­van, a former as­sist­ant sec­ret­ary of State to Con­doleezza Rice, can still de­feat Be­gich be­cause the state’s sharp dis­like of Pres­id­ent Obama will prove too much for the sen­at­or to over­come. An elect­or­al wave in fa­vor of the GOP””an out­come some ana­lysts are de­clin­ing to rule out””might be enough to carry Sul­li­van to vic­tory, es­pe­cially against a sen­at­or who man­aged to win only a nar­row plur­al­ity of the vote against the scan­dal-plagued Ted Stevens in 2008.

In a post-primary state­ment, Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee Chair­man Jerry Mor­an tied Be­gich to the pres­id­ent, likely the first of many sim­il­ar mes­sages to come from Re­pub­lic­ans in the gen­er­al elec­tion. “Mark Be­gich has cham­pioned the Obama agenda,” Mor­an said in the state­ment. “He has voted for the Obama agenda a stag­ger­ing 97 per­cent of the time””in­clud­ing costly en­ergy taxes, spend­ing in­creases, and of course, Obama­care.”

But few Re­pub­lic­ans, even some Sul­li­van al­lies, ex­pressed con­fid­ence that the GOP nom­in­ee will hold up well in a one-on-one com­par­is­on with the one-term sen­at­or. In un­usu­ally can­did in­ter­views, many of the state’s GOP op­er­at­ives said that Be­gich””a former may­or of the state’s largest city, An­chor­age, and the son of a con­gress­man””has proven the bet­ter can­did­ate thus far. Many ana­lysts have praised not just Be­gich’s out­reach to loc­al Alaska vot­ing blocs but his early TV ads, one of which re­called the death of his fath­er, who was killed in a plane crash while in of­fice.

Many Demo­crats con­sider Be­gich, along with Sen. Mark Pry­or in Arkan­sas, to be run­ning the best cam­paign of any Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bent up for reelec­tion.

“Be­gich is someone who has run for of­fice a dozen times and learned how to run and how to run ef­fect­ively, and that’s his as­set,” said Mark Hel­lenth­al, a Re­pub­lic­an strategist based in An­chor­age. “He lives and breathes polit­ics. He’s got a team that’s tried and true, they’ve gone through many elec­tions with him. He would be a good cam­paign man­ager if he wasn’t the can­did­ate.”

Hel­lenth­al ad­ded, “None of those state­ments are true of Sul­li­van.”

Sul­li­van has held only two state of­fices””Alaska’s at­tor­ney gen­er­al and later the De­part­ment of Nat­ur­al Re­sources com­mis­sion­er””and both came to the first-time can­did­ate by gubernat­ori­al ap­point­ment. That means the Ohio nat­ive wasn’t able to es­tab­lish au­then­ti­city as an Alaskan in pre­vi­ous cam­paign, and at­tacks from both parties on that is­sue in part ex­plain why Sul­li­van struggled to win his GOP primary des­pite the back­ing of be­hemoths like the con­ser­vat­ive Club for Growth and the Karl Rove-backed Amer­ic­an Cross­roads. Sul­li­van won his primary, but with nearly all of the vote coun­ted when the As­so­ci­ated Press called the race, Sul­li­van barely had more than 40 per­cent of the vote des­pite run­ning against a pair of un­der­fun­ded and lightly re­garded op­pon­ents. 

Ques­tion­ing Sul­li­van’s com­mit­ment to the state is a tack taken re­lent­lessly by Demo­crats, who have spent mil­lions of dol­lars on TV rais­ing the is­sue with voters.

“Dan Sul­li­van, born and raised in Ohio, and re­cent own­er of a mil­lion-dol­lar Mary­land home,” began one ad from the group Put Alaska First, a Be­gich-al­lied su­per PAC that gets the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of its money from Demo­crats’ main Sen­ate out­side group, Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity PAC.

The at­tacks took their toll on Sul­li­van: Alaska is one of the few Sen­ate battle­grounds in which Re­pub­lic­ans don’t hold an over­whelm­ing spend­ing ad­vant­age over Demo­crats. And con­sequently, the cri­ti­cism lobbed at Sul­li­van went un­answered for weeks.

“You can’t con­trol what you can’t con­trol,” said Hack­ney, who runs the pro-Sul­li­van Alaska’s En­ergy/Amer­ica’s Val­ues su­per PAC and ad­vises Cross­roads in the state. “Some­body should have spent the money and didn’t.”

It’s hard to tell, em­pir­ic­ally, where the race stands. Polling is no­tori­ously dif­fi­cult in Alaska, es­pe­cially among the far-flung rur­al voters who could make or break the even­tu­al vic­tor, and what few sur­veys have been done are largely seen as un­re­li­able. But as Sen­ate races across the coun­try tight­en, strategists from both parties agree that Be­gich has main­tained a dis­tinct ad­vant­age that Re­pub­lic­ans now have just over two months to try to undo. As people from the state are fond of say­ing, Alaska is just dif­fer­ent””at least for now.

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