Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell was about to take the podium for the Anchorage launch of his bid for U.S. Senate Thursday morning when the governor's office emailed an announcement that natural resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan was resigning.
Sullivan, who like Treadwell is a Republican, has been the topic of much speculation about whether he would also make a run at unseating Sen. Mark Begich, a first-term Democrat.
Suddenly the Alaska Republican primary for U.S. Senate got interesting.
Never mind that Sullivan, who served as Alaska attorney general before becoming commissioner, hasn't said whether he's running. He was traveling to Alaska from Japan Thursday so was unavailable for an interview, an aide said in an email. Thursday's announcement about Sullivan still bit into Treadwell's moment in the spotlight.
Joe Miller, who won the Republican primary for Alaska's other Senate seat in 2010 only to lose to write-in U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, already is in the 2014 race.
The timing was a coincidence, said Sharon Leighow, spokeswoman for Gov. Sean Parnell. Parnell accepted Sullivan's resignation Thursday morning. Sullivan sent a letter Wednesday saying he was stepping down effective Sept. 24.
"As I explore new opportunities and challenges in the next phase of my life, I intend to seek ways to continue to serve my fellow Alaskans," Sullivan wrote. Sullivan's biography says he's a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps Reserves, serving as executive officer of an anti-terrorism battalion. He just was recalled to active duty for a tour in Afghanistan, returning to Alaska a week ago then heading out to Japan, where he signed an agreement with one of the world's largest financiers of liquefied natural gas projects.
The governor's officer needed to alert state legislative leaders before Sullivan's resignation was publicly announced Thursday morning, Leighow said in an email. "That got underway around 9:30 this morning."
The general election race already was expected to be one of the most fiercely contested in the country. The GOP considers Alaska key to retaking the Senate. For months, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has been firing off against Begich -- and sometimes misfiring -- just as the Alaska Democratic Party has been lashing out against Treadwell.
In 2008, U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens had just been convicted of corruption in a case that was later thrown out when Begich beat him by fewer than 4,000 votes.
Treadwell, 57, is a widowed father with three children in high school and college. He was Parnell's running mate in 2010 and took office in 2011. He came to Alaska as a teenager about 40 years ago. He did a stint as state deputy commissioner of environmental conservation in the 1990s during Gov. Wally Hickel's second term and talked Thursday about Hickel, as well as former governors Jay Hammond and Bill Egan.
NO GOP 'Demolition Derby'
Treadwell already announced in June that he was running, but Thursday marked his first big public campaign event in Anchorage. He spoke for about 15 minutes before dozens of enthusiastic supporters who crowded into his campaign office on Northern Lights Boulevard. He touched on support for any number of causes and groups: senior citizens and firefighters, soldiers and sailors, gun rights and oil production, liberty and as he called it, "fiscal sanity."
Former House Speaker Gail Phillips and former Senate President Drue Pearce told the crowd they back him. So did Eagle River Rep. Lora Reinbold, who praised his work in 2010 to pass a ballot initiative that requires parental notification before an abortion.
Campaign aides said he couldn't take questions because he needed to shake hands and get to his next campaign stop in Wasilla. Afterwards, the campaign didn't respond to several emails seeking additional information, including whether he would remain lieutenant governor, overseeing elections, while campaigning.
Reporters managed to corral him on the Sullivan news.
Treadwell said Sullivan hadn't told him he's resigning but said he did a good job as natural resources commissioner.
"I look forward to being in the race with him," Treadwell said. "He's helped me navigate Washington. I've helped him navigate Alaska."
As to whether the primary race just got tougher, Treadwell said "Here's the deal. We can't have a demolition derby in the Republican primary. We've got to beat Mark Begich in November."
Asked about Miller, Treadwell said "he's not the only guy who's standing up for liberty."
Miller's campaign spokesman, Randy DeSoto, said in an email that the Senate campaign is about solving the nation's problems.
"Our campaign welcomes all candidates to the race and looks forward to a vigorous, civil debate about the best way to save the country we love for future generations," DeSoto said.
Democrats said they were surprised by the Sullivan news and pounced on the prospect of a rough Republican primary.
"It is going to be a long, contentious year for Joe Miller, Mead Treadwell, and Dan Sullivan -- and we still don't even know what Sarah Palin will do," Alaska Democratic Party Chairman Mike Wenstrup said in a statement. The former Alaska governor, who appointed Sullivan as attorney general, said in a national radio interview in July that she had considered jumping into the race but was hoping for "some new blood, new energy." .
In his speech, Treadwell targeted Begich and what he described as federal excesses. He talked about being anti-abortion. He touched on marriage and said he swore to uphold the Alaska Constitution so will defend the amendment that defines marriage as being between a man and woman. But he didn't expressly say he was against gay marriage.
Treadwell vowed to fight to repeal "Obamacare," the Affordable Care Act.
"Mark Begich came home proudly and said he was the deciding vote for Obamacare, and now look what's happening," Treadwell said, asserting that health care reform is causing businesses to limit the number of hours employees can work, presumably to avoid having to cover them.
While Begich supported health care reform, he wasn't the deciding vote and didn't claim to be, his campaign manager said in an email.
"That was a big national Republican talking point last year against just about every Democratic senator but has been debunked pretty well," Begich campaign manager Susanne Fleek-Green said.
Begich voted with President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid 93 percent of the time, Treadwell said. He nodded toward a woman in the crowd, Lisa Nelson, a former assistant attorney general whom he's dating.
"Lisa can tell you I don't agree with anybody 93 percent of the time," Treadwell said. "We need a senator on Alaska's team, not the White House team."
He also was critical of Begich's work on trying to open up more federal areas to oil drilling, including offshore in the Arctic. "Hasn't happened yet," Treadwell said.
The Obama administration did allow Royal Dutch Shell to drill partial wells in 2012 -- after Begich pushed for it -- only to see the company falter with its equipment, including major problems with both of its drilling rigs.
Begich spoke on the Senate floor Thursday about oil projects in Alaska and elsewhere and urged the Obama administration "to stop dragging its feet and start creating American jobs," his staff said.
He is ready for the election fight, his campaign manager said.
"Sen. Begich is a straight-shooter and tough campaigner who looks forward to putting his record up against whoever wins what looks to be a long, contentious primary," Fleek-Green said.
Treadwell's campaign motto is "bring decision making home to Alaska."
"Last week the Democratic senatorial committee tweeted that they think our slogan is the worst campaign slogan of all time," Treadwell said. "Now let's make them wear that tweet!"
NOTE: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said that the 2010 ballot initiative called for parental consent before an abortion. It called for parental notification.
Reach Lisa Demer at email@example.com or 257-4390.
By LISA DEMER