All Politics Is Local In Alaska

In a state filled with outsiders, will it hurt the GOP’s newest Senate recruit to be a newcomer?

National Journal
Scott Bland
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Scott Bland
Oct. 15, 2013, 8:33 a.m.

While Sen­ate in­cum­bents and House mem­bers look­ing for a pro­mo­tion are look­ing for ways to avoid be­ing branded with Con­gress’s ter­rible ap­prov­al rat­ings in 2014, one new Sen­ate can­did­ate has op­pon­ents only too happy to paint him as an out­sider — to his ad­op­ted home state.

Former Alaska Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mis­sion­er Dan Sul­li­van, a Re­pub­lic­an, is set to an­nounce his Sen­ate can­did­acy today, giv­ing GOP strategists a second can­did­ate they be­lieve can beat Demo­crat­ic Sen. Mark Be­gich. It also sets up a tough primary with two oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans: Lt. Gov. Mead Tread­well and 2010 Sen­ate nom­in­ee Joe Miller, who lost the gen­er­al elec­tion that year to Sen. Lisa Murkowski and her in­de­pend­ent write-in bid.

Sul­li­van has an ac­com­plished re­sume to tout: He’s held mul­tiple po­s­i­tions at the top levels of state gov­ern­ment and did for­eign policy work for Pres­id­ent George W. Bush’s ad­min­is­tra­tion. Plus, he is a Mar­ine who still serves in the re­serves and de­ployed to Afgh­anistan over the sum­mer. But Be­gich and Tread­well have both ar­gued there’s an ele­ment miss­ing in his re­sume: long-time Alaska res­id­ency.

Even be­fore he had an op­pon­ent, back in Feb­ru­ary, Be­gich framed his up­com­ing reelec­tion race — and his Sen­ate ser­vice — in these terms: “Alaskans don’t like out­siders com­ing in.” Be­gich trained that view­point against his po­ten­tial op­pon­ents later this year, telling the An­chor­age Daily News, “I’ve been in a lot of tough races. Bring it on. I was born and raised here. Those guys are vis­it­ors. Come on in, out­siders, and see how Alaskans treat ya.”

And a week after Sul­li­van’s pre­par­a­tions for a bid stepped on Tread­well’s cam­paign an­nounce­ment, the lieu­ten­ant gov­ernor — who was born and raised in the North­east but first moved to Alaska after col­lege — also got in­to the act. In an in­ter­view with Politico, Tread­well cri­ti­cized Sul­li­van’s time spent in Alaska, say­ing: “I’ve got a jar of may­on­naise in my re­fri­ger­at­or that’s been there longer than Dan Sul­li­van’s been in Alaska.”

Com­pared to them, Sul­li­van is a re­l­at­ive new­comer to the state and its polit­ics. His wife is an Alaska nat­ive, but he first moved to the state in 1997. His fam­ily des­ig­nated its Mary­land home as its prin­cip­al res­id­ence while he worked for the Bush Ad­min­is­tra­tion, dur­ing which time Sul­li­van con­tin­ued to vote ab­sent­ee in Alaska but skipped some elec­tions in­clud­ing ma­jor Re­pub­lic­an primar­ies in­volving former Gov. Sarah Pal­in and GOP Rep. Don Young. As the An­chor­age Daily News noted, Pal­in wrote that she had nev­er heard of him when Sul­li­van’s name was first floated for state at­tor­ney gen­er­al in 2009. (Pal­in ap­poin­ted him to the post that June.) And a joke open­ing one of Sul­li­van’s eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment speeches from 2007 — “I have called Alaska home since I real­ized they don’t have a state in­come tax” — may come off badly with voters if his op­pon­ents try to use it.

But the newly min­ted Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ate has a sol­id ex­cuse: After mov­ing to Alaska in the late ‘90s, Sul­li­van left to serve his coun­try as a Mar­ine and Bush Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial and then re­turned to serve the state. Ul­ti­mately, that — along with dozens of state-spe­cif­ic policy is­sues that are sure to come up — may mat­ter more than length of res­id­ency.

“To my Alaska Nat­ive wife and teen­age daugh­ters, all of whom were born here ex­cept for my old­est who moved to Alaska at five months, these at­tacks seem silly at best,” Sul­li­van said in a state­ment. “I moved to the state after mar­ry­ing my wife Ju­lie, a life-long Alaskan with deep In­teri­or roots, and have called Alaska home ever since. I have served Alaskans as their At­tor­ney Gen­er­al and as the Com­mis­sion­er of the De­part­ment of Nat­ur­al Re­sources. The time I spent out­side of the state was to serve my coun­try after 9/11. First, on the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Coun­cil staff at the White House, then as a Mar­ine Corps In­fantry of­ficer and fi­nally as an As­sist­ant Sec­ret­ary of State. Today, I launched my cam­paign fo­cused on tack­ling the big is­sues that face our state and coun­try and I re­main op­tim­ist­ic that my op­pon­ents will join me in that de­bate.”

The early at­tacks on Tread­well sug­gest his op­pon­ent re­cog­nize he’s a for­mid­able can­did­ate, and hope they can blunt his prom­ising pro­file with at­tacks on his lack of Alaska roots.

“We feel the sen­at­or that rep­res­ents Alaska should have a really in­tim­ate un­der­stand­ing of the way Alaska works, the way the folks in Alaska de­serve to be rep­res­en­ted, and it really comes back to keep­ing fed govt out of the way,” said Tread­well spokes­man Rick Gorka. Gorka said that Tread­well’s base of sup­port, in his 2010 primary and in the cur­rent cam­paign, is “the type of sup­port that comes from be­ing in state and work­ing in state as long as you have. You cant make up for time. If you come in­to race without that type of ex­per­i­ence, it’s tough to make up that ground.”’

Be­gich’s cam­paign de­clined to com­ment.

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