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.