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Does a Dan Sullivan run for Senate clear path for Joe Miller?

Tea party favorite Joe Miller may not have a big enough base to beat Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell in a GOP Senate nomination fight, but if Alaska Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan makes it a three-way duel, Miller's campaign might get new life.
Aaron Jansen illustration

JUNEAU -- Tea party favorite Joe Miller may have seen his path to the Republican nomination for Alaska’s crucial U.S. Senate seat get much clearer this week.

Commissioner Dan Sullivan of the Department of Natural Resources announced his resignation Thursday, an act that will clear the way for a Senate run, something he can't do in his administration job.

Miller joins Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, who formally announced his campaign Thursday, in seeking the coveted nomination to take on incumbent Sen. Mark Begich, a first-term Democrat in a state that Obama lost by 15 points last election.

But Miller has high negatives, despite his stunning tea party-backed upset of incumbent Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski in 2010. He eventually lost to her in the general election after she mounted a write-in campaign that drew national attention.

"(Miller) just got a new life," said long-time Alaska pollster Marc Hellenthal of a Sullivan entry into the race.

While Miller's base in the Republican party might be not be enough to defeat Treadwell head-to-head, it might be enough in a three-way race.

"If Treadwell and Commissioner Sullivan duke it out, Miller has an excellent chance of winning," Hellenthal said.

While Miller's support probably tops out at 35-40 percent, that could be enough with an even split of the rest of the vote.

That could greatly improve the incumbent's chances of re-election, Hellenthal said.

"That's Begich's best dream, waking up the morning after the primary and finding out he's running against Joe Miller," he said.

That may depend in large part about how well each of the mainstream candidates would do, and a Sullivan candidacy would face a difficult task of taking his name familiarity statewide.

While Sullivan is well known in political circles, where he was named Attorney General by Former Gov. Sarah Palin, before being moved to Commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources by new Gov. Parnell following his election to a full term.

He's also a Marine Corps Reserve officer, who recently returned from a tour in Afghanistan.

But what's well known in political circles isn't necessarily well known to the public, said former Rep. John Harris, R-Valdez, a prominent member of the Legislature who saw his bid for higher office fall short.

"It's a very small readership that pays attention to that stuff, they pay attention to just a few positions, the governor, the (U.S.) senators, the congressman, that's about it," he said.

He served twice as Speaker of the House of Representatives, but found that that wasn't one of the positions that gets statewide attention when he ran for governor. He's now a lobbyist.

Either already holding a statewide office, or Anchorage business leader or mayor produce viable candidates, although some other city leaders have been successful as well.

Sullivan will have to be able to raise enough money to be competitive primary where some major donors may sit out waiting for the eventual winner, Hellenthal said.

That could make it tougher for Sullivan, despite the dream resume and insider familiarity.

"The big key to name recognition, you have to either be in office where your name is thrown around when you are doing things on a statewide basis, or you have to be able to buy name recognition," Harris said.

Harris said he's friends with both Sullivan and Treadwell, and isn't taking sides, but said that at least initially Treadwell may have more name recognition statewide.

But there's another wild card in that race. Commissioner Dan Sullivan shares a name with Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan.

"Most people are going to assume the mayor of Anchorage is running for the U.S. Senate, at least initially, because the last mayor of Anchorage did, rather successfully," Hellenthal said.

He said that's already been shown by a poll by Public Policy Polling that showed Commissioner Sullivan with 49 percent name familiarity, which Hellenthal called "nonsense."

Non-politically oriented people don't follow state government officials -- such as commissioners -- that closely, he said. He's sure the PPP poll attributed opinions about Mayor Sullivan to Commissioner Sullivan.

"Ordinary people don't pay that much attention to politics," he said. "Ordinary people may have political discussions once or twice a year and that's it. They're worried about getting their kids to soccer or something that's going on at work."

The name similarity may benefit Commissioner Sullivan, at least initially, but he'll have to eventually differentiate himself, he said.

Fortunately for Commissioner Sullivan's chances in a Republican primary, Mayor Sullivan is also a Republican, and any name confusion is more likely to help than hurt.

"That helps commissioner Sullivan, to the degree that Mayor Sullivan is well liked," Hellenthal said. 

Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com