ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Begich wants Alaskans to know he is one of them and an independent voice against President Barack Obama. But Tuesday’s primary produced a GOP nominee with a military record that could hold broad appeal in a state with a high population of veterans.
Newly-nominated GOP challenger Dan Sullivan, Alaska’s former attorney general and a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps reserves, poses a challenge for Begich that the freshman lawmaker didn’t face in 2008, when he defeated scandal-plagued incumbent Ted Stevens. The veteran senator spent most of that election in a courtroom. Sullivan faces no such restrictions on his time. He’s demonstrated a fundraising prowess that rivals Begich’s.
But unlike Begich, who was born and raised in Alaska, Sullivan hails from Ohio. Sullivan’s wife, however, is from Alaska and his roots here date to the 1990s. Sullivan also has spent much of the past 10 months battling it out in a three-way GOP primary and fending off attacks by Democrats and a pro-Begich super PAC. Begich, meanwhile, faced no real Democratic opposition and has spent money and time building his bona fides in a state where relationships and roots are important to voters.
Begich used the time to open campaign offices in far-flung places like a coin-operated laundry in Dillingham, a hamlet of 2,000 people. He’s allowed himself to be videotaped strutting his stuff at the Athabascan Fiddlers’ dance in Fairbanks. And as anyone with a television knows, he rode a snowmobile in subzero temperatures in the Arctic, speaking into a camera about fighting the Obama administration to help secure offshore drilling permits.
The two-pronged message puts the freshman senator in a unique position to benefit from this conservative state’s strong nonpartisan streak, despite its overwhelming votes against Obama in 2008 and 2012. For many voters, going with the person they know and trust matters far more than party labels.
“The national policies are important,” said Bill Popp, president of the Anchorage Economic Development Corp. and a longtime friend of Begich. “But the ground game of how you take care of constituents’ needs in the state will be much more important.”
Begich knows this. His campaign motto is “True Alaska” and, despite holding a leadership position in the Senate Democratic conference, he has worked to cast himself as independent voice. To defeat him, Republicans will have to convince voters that it’s bad for the country for Democrats to control the Senate – the GOP needs to net six seats to win control of the chamber – but also that Begich is bad for Alaska.
The Republican National Committee, which has established a field presence here, is seeking to cast the race as a referendum on Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Sullivan called Begich a “loyal lieutenant” to Reid.
“Now is the time to focus on the real issues that matter the most to Alaskans,” Sullivan said in a statement early Wednesday. “I look forward to painting a clear contrast between Mark Begich’s inability to move our state forward and my vision for a brighter and better Alaska.”
In Anchorage, where Begich grew up and once served in the assembly and as mayor, his campaign signs sat in some yards next to the independent candidate for governor and those supportive of oil tax cuts put in place by the Republican-controlled state Legislature last year. Some people still remember his days as a property manager, when he would show up at all hours to fix leaky toilets.
“Let’s not get caught up in the D.C. trap of Democrats versus Republicans,” he said in an interview. “When you’re in Alaska it’s about what’s important for Alaska.”
Begich will soon have 13 field offices in the state, including in communities that his campaign said have never had them before, like Barrow, billed as the northern most city in the United States, and Dillingham, where people have P.O. boxes for addresses. Having support in rural Alaska is seen as critical to running a successful statewide race, particularly one that’s expected to be tight.
He says that establishing an office sends a message: “Look, you are part of this campaign. We need your help. I need your support. I need your time.”
Growing up, Begich wanted nothing to do with politics, which he blamed for his father’s death. Nick Begich was Alaska’s lone congressman when the plane carrying him and House Majority Leader Hale Boggs, D-La., vanished en route to Juneau in 1972. Mark was 10.
Looking back, stories he heard about his dad – later featured prominently in a poignant campaign ad – influenced his decision to venture into politics, he said.
He served as mayor of Alaska’s largest city for nearly six years. In 2008, at the height of the Obama wave, Begich eked out a win over Stevens, who had been convicted on federal corruption charges days before the election. The charges were later overturned, fueling Republican anger that the party was robbed of the seat.
In Washington, Begich joined the Democratic Party’s Senate leadership team and voted with his party to approve Obama’s health care overhaul. But he opposed Democratic pushes for expanded gun sale background checks and his party’s support for keeping the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge off-limits to oil and gas drilling.
While he landed a coveted spot on the Senate Appropriations Committee, his critics say he hasn’t used his influence enough to help Alaska.
“Tell me how having a Democrat in the Senate, working with a Democrat administration, has benefited the state of Alaska,” Alaska’s senior senator, Republican Lisa Murkowski, said in vowing to help get a Republican elected. “I’ve yet to see it.”
Murkowski, who just last month said she and Begich often agree on Alaska-related issues, came out hard against Begich on Monday.
“I think it’s critically important that we reform the Senate, and you can best reform the Senate by change in leadership,” she said.
Begich, the first Democratic senator to represent Alaska in nearly three decades, said who runs the Senate is not what Alaskans care about. Instead, he said, voters care about efforts like fighting to save a subsidized mail system to ship items from the Lower 48 states. They want to see their senators trying to stem rising seawaters that threaten coastal villages. And they want community projects, like a hospital in Nome that benefited from the federal stimulus package he supported.
He stood behind an ad touting his bipartisan work with Murkowski, despite her demands that he take it down.
Norma Wadsworth, a Begich volunteer within the Hispanic community, has in the past supported Murkowski. She thinks Murkowski and Begich make a great team.
“We’re loyal to Sen. Begich because we believe that he has done a good job for the Alaskan people. And that’s No. 1,” she said at a recent Begich event. “And then, he’s an Alaskan.”