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Problems in planning Senate candidate debate underscore GOP divisions

Nat Herz

Organizers of the first full-scale debate for the three Republican candidates vying to oust Democratic Sen. Mark Begich said Tuesday the event would go ahead as planned in spite of concerns raised by one of the candidates and a state GOP official that it could violate federal election laws.

Four Southcentral Republican women's clubs were planning to host the debate, which is scheduled for Thursday night at East High School in Anchorage. But in order to do so and be in compliance with federal election laws, the groups needed accounts registered with the Federal Election Commission, which they lack, according to Frank McQueary, a state Republican Party official.

But Judy Eledge, the president of the Anchorage Republican Women's Club -- one of the groups sponsoring the debate -- said in an interview Tuesday night that her club had secured a "media sponsor" on "very short notice" that would solve the legal problems.

"No one in the party, until Sunday, called this to our attention," she said. "We think we have three great candidates -- all we wanted to do was for everybody to have a chance to hear them."

Tuesday's discussions about the debate underscored divisions within the Republican Party and between the primary candidates, with tea party darling Joe Miller issuing a press release Tuesday evening that quoted a spokesman as saying the legal concerns were part of a "manufactured crisis" that the GOP establishment had created with the help of Dan Sullivan, a more moderate candidate who has attracted the backing of Outside groups.

Sullivan's campaign earlier Tuesday had issued a press release noting an announcement the previous day that the debate "potentially violated federal campaign finance laws" and offering to pay the costs of hosting the event.

"It is simply unacceptable that three days before the debate, Sullivan's supporters are trying to hijack the sponsorship, presumably in an attempt to change the format, which they have repeatedly objected to," Miller spokesman Randy DeSoto is quoted as saying in the campaign's press release.

Sullivan's campaign manager, Ben Sparks, pointed out in an email that the third candidate in the race, Mead Treadwell, had initially agreed to work with the other two candidates to find a way to keep the debate on track, after state Republican Party members had raised their concerns.

"Now that our media sponsors are taking financial responsibility for this debate, the campaigns and sponsors can focus on the real issues in this race and the best way to unseat Mark Begich in November," Sparks said. "Dan is looking forward to this debate and is hopeful the sponsorship issues have been resolved."

McQueary, the state Republican Party's assistant treasurer, said in an interview that he got involved simply to try to keep the candidates from running afoul of election laws.

He described the debate as originally planned as "an invitation for disaster for the party."

"What we try to do is provide a little adult supervision," he said. "I would agree that the rules are probably in excess of what's rational and reasonable, but they are the rules."

He added that the controversy over the debate was "unfortunate" and that the women's clubs are generally "an asset to the party."

Eledge, president of the Anchorage Republican Women's Club, said the solution that McQueary had been pushing -- for the candidates to host the debate using their federal accounts -- wouldn't have worked. And she added that neither the state Republican Party nor another statewide women's group had stepped in with an offer to sponsor the debate using their own federal accounts.

"When you're a Republican or Democrat, right is right and wrong is wrong. You know what -- I don't back down," Eledge said. "We have done everything we could to make this work."

 


By Nat Herz
nherz@adn.com