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In GOP primary, some worry being Dan Sullivan could hurt -- or help -- Dan Sullivan

Nathaniel Herz
Left: Dan Sullivan, a former Alaska attorney general and Natural Resources commissioner, is a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate. Right: Republican lieutenant governor canididate Dan Sullivan has served as mayor of Anchorage since 2009. Before that, he served on the Anchorage Assembly.

Anchorage political consultant Jim Lottsfeldt is working to re-elect U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat running against a field of Republicans that includes former Alaska attorney general and Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan.

So why, then, does Lottsfeldt get excited when the mayor of Anchorage says something controversial?

That’s because Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan, a veteran politician who’s running for lieutenant governor, shares a name with the chief rival for Begich's Senate seat, a political neophyte -- and Lottsfeldt thinks some people won’t know the difference at the ballot box.

In a strange coincidence, 15 percent of the candidates for statewide office in Aug. 19's GOP primary -- two out of 14 -- are named Dan Sullivan. And the rivals of Daniel Scott Sullivan, who’s running for Senate, argue that he’s likely to gain an edge from the conservative credentials that Mayor Daniel Albert Sullivan has accumulated in his 15 years as an elected official.

“If this guy’s name was Dan Flanagan, he wouldn’t be a contender. Even with all his money,” Lottsfeldt said in a phone interview. “Dan Sullivan didn’t have to buy or earn any name ID -- it just came built-in.”

Sullivan’s Senate campaign says that’s not true, and that his support has grown as he’s run a traditional campaign this year. While confusion may have been a problem earlier this year -- when even local television stations mixed up the two candidates -- a tide of television advertisements featuring the former commissioner has cleared everything up, said Hans Kaiser, the pollster for the Senate hopeful.

“The idea that somehow Dan Sullivan is doing well in the primary because people think he’s the mayor of Anchorage -- it’s pretty ludicrous at this point,” Kaiser said. “He’s the one who’s built the Dan Sullivan name ID over the last several months.”

Data on the dual Dans is thin. A poll conducted in late May on behalf of the mayor’s lieutenant governor campaign showed that 19 percent of likely voters in the Republican primary thought the Dan Sullivan running for lieutenant governor was the former commissioner. (They were wrong.) And 18 percent weren’t sure.

“There is a significant amount of confusion about which Dan is running for which office,” said Matt Larkin, whose firm, Dittman Research, conducted the poll. (At the time, Larkin was not affiliated with a Senate campaign, though he is now working for another Republican primary candidate, Mead Treadwell.)

The poll, Larkin said, showed that voters liked the Anchorage mayor more and knew him better than the Senate candidate who shares his name.

“It’s giving commissioner Dan a boost,” Larkin said in a phone interview. “I mean, the mayor of Anchorage, next to the governor, is probably the most high-profile position in the state. He’s on the news once a week.”

But in the two months since the Dittman Research poll, candidates and independent groups have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the Senate campaign, and much of that has gone towards ads either attacking the former commissioner or promoting him.

That’s rendered the confusion moot, said Kaiser, the pollster.

Kaiser contrasted Larkin’s numbers to his own polling, which he said showed that in January, about half of likely Republican voters couldn’t identify the Dan Sullivan running for Senate. About one in six thought he was the mayor rather than the former commissioner.

Kaiser said Sullivan's numbers have “grown incredibly” since then, but he didn’t have more recent figures available, saying the campaign doesn’t ask the question any more.

“We don’t think it’s relevant,” he said, adding that television ads featuring the former commissioner are no less effective even if people mistake him for the mayor of Anchorage.

The two candidates will use the exact same name on the August ballot: Dan Sullivan, with no middle initials. The director of the state Division of Elections, Gail Fenumiai, said aspiring officeholders are allowed to choose how they want to appear.

“One could have done Daniel; one could have done Dan,” she said. “But they both chose to do the same.”

The August primary is not the first time voters have been presented with candidates with identical names on the same ballot.

In fact, a decade ago in New York City, two Jose Serranos ran for the same seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. (Technically, one was José, and the other was Jose. José won.)

Political observers couldn’t recall any situations in which two candidates with the same name appeared on a single ballot in Alaska, though in the 1980s a North Pole Mike Miller and a Juneau Mike Miller served in the state Legislature at the same time.

An informal canvass in midtown and downtown Anchorage this week suggested that the Senate campaign ads -- some of which have tried to label Sullivan an Outsider because of his ties to Washington, D.C., and Ohio -- have raised his profile. But some people remained uncertain about each Sullivan’s biographical details.

Presented with photos of both, Mary Jo Burns, an Anchorage resident, gazed at the Senate candidate and said: “They say he’s not an Alaskan.”

Asked which one was running for Senate, she responded: “They both are.”

“Well, I know he is,” she added, looking at the former commissioner.

Out of 20 Alaskans interviewed, 15 correctly picked the photo of the former commissioner as the Sullivan running for Senate -- though to be fair, one of those 20 was Gov. Sean Parnell, Sullivan’s former boss, who was caught as he left a midtown restaurant.

“I think voters are smart enough to figure it out,” Parnell said. “You’ve got to trust the voters.”

Any lingering confusion is unlikely to hurt the former commissioner in his Senate primary, said Marc Hellenthal, a Republican pollster who has worked with the Anchorage mayor in the past.

The mayor enjoys strong support from conservatives, Hellenthal added, in part because he led the passage last year of a new Anchorage labor law aimed at curtailing the power of municipal unions.

“Amongst Republican voters, his numbers are real sterling,” Hellenthal said in a phone interview.

The November election, however, would be a different matter, as the mayor’s initiatives have not been viewed as favorably by the general public, Hellenthal said.

And the presence of the former commissioner in the general election is not a foregone conclusion, as a spokesman for Begich pointed out.

"There's two Dan Sullivans on the primary ballot, but right now there's only a guarantee there will be one on the general ballot," said the spokesman, Max Croes. (The Anchorage mayor does not have a serious opponent.)

Croes added that Begich expects to collect votes from two Dan Sullivans in the general election -- one from Homer, and one from Petersburg.

Mike Anderson, a spokesman for the former commissioner, said he was unaware of any Sullivan supporters named Mark Begich.

He added in an email: "Dan supports Mayor Dan."