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Sullivan attack on Republican opponent may signal a tightening primary race

Nathaniel Herz

The campaign of Dan Sullivan, the front-runner in the Aug. 19 Republican Party primary for U.S. Senate, released a pair of mailers this week attacking GOP rival Mead Treadwell in what experts say is a sign the race is tightening after a barrage of attacks on Sullivan from Democratic groups.

The mailers, which went to households in Anchorage and Fairbanks, attack Treadwell for serving on the board of a dredging company that received nearly $6 million in federal money through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, commonly known as the 2009 stimulus package.

Treadwell has criticized the stimulus as part of his campaign, saying in a message on his campaign website earlier this year that it was “placing the price tag on the backs of future generations,” Sullivan’s mailer said.

The attack set the state’s political circles abuzz, as Sullivan had pledged to run a positive campaign and had largely done so until this week.

May polls on the Republican primary, which also includes far-right candidate Joe Miller, showed Sullivan ahead by as much as 16 points over Treadwell but even Sullivan’s own polling showed that margin shrinking to nine points in June. And two surveys conducted that month by local firms unaffiliated with the Republican candidates pegged Sullivan’s lead at less than five points.

No polling data on the Republican primary has been released publicly since then, and experts said that Sullivan’s attack is an indication Treadwell is drawing closer.

“If you’re attacking your opponent, it’s because you believe you need to do that to win,” said Chris Vance, a consultant in Washington who’s the former head of that state’s Republican Party. “You’re either behind, or the other guy is getting too close for comfort.”

A spokesman for Sullivan said the campaign had shifted two weeks ago at a debate in Homer, when Treadwell’s closing statement included some barbs directed towards Sullivan.

“The Homer debate really changed the course for us. We’re going to defend Dan, and we’ve basically had it,” the spokesman, Mike Anderson, said in a phone interview. “Our focus is going to continue to be on exposing our opponents’ records on the issues, and that’s what you saw in this mail piece.”

Both of Sullivan’s mailers focused on Treadwell’s role at Ellicott Dredges, a Maryland company that builds dredging equipment.

His college roommate was the firm’s chief executive, and Treadwell became a board member in 2002 or 2003. He and other investors sold their majority stake in Ellicott in 2009, and he reported a capital gain of nearly $1.1 million.

Since then, Treadwell has been a non-voting advisory board member, he said, and he reported income of between $20,000 and $50,000 from Ellicott on his most recent annual financial disclosure form filed with the state.

Sullivan’s first mailer says Treadwell “says one thing but does another,” and that “Alaskans can’t afford more hypocrisy,” citing the fact Treadwell had attacked the stimulus even though Ellicott received nearly $6 million in stimulus money.

Asked about the first mailer, Treadwell responded: “I’m disappointed, because it’s not factual.”

The ad says Ellicott received all of its stimulus money before Treadwell received his $1.1 million payout. But Treadwell said that $4 million actually came in 2010, after the sale of the majority interest in the company.

The $4 million, Treadwell said, was from a federal contract that Ellicott won to supply a dredge to the Department of the Interior.

Treadwell also said the portrait photo in the first mailer was doctored to depict him wearing a tie, suit, and hexagonal watch that are not his.

“It’s not even my body with the head on it,” Treadwell said. “It’s hard to own up to that haircut, but I probably did have that haircut at one point.”

Sullivan’s campaign manager, Ben Sparks, responded, “If Mead’s only quibble with this mail piece is the photo, then I think he has bigger issues to worry about.”

Treadwell, however, said he found the premise of the ad to be “laughable and a total stretch,” though he acknowledged he had been critical of the stimulus package.

“It’s certainly not hypocritical of me to suggest the government did not need to spend an extra trillion dollars that year to build the economy,” Treadwell said. (The stimulus package was $787 billion.)

Sparks said Treadwell was being hypocritical because he chose to campaign against the stimulus.

“He did not have to campaign against the stimulus,” Sparks said.

The mailer's message presents risks for Sullivan, said Vance, the Washington consultant, adding that voters can sour on both candidates when one attacks another. Marc Hellenthal, a local Republican pollster and consultant, said he tells his clients that attacking their opponents is like “smoking a cigarette and pouring gasoline in your car -- you've got to be very careful or it blows up in your face.”

But it’s clear from the mailer, Hellenthal added, that Sullivan’s campaign sees Treadwell as a threat.

That’s thanks to the more than $3 million in advertising attacking Sullivan that’s come from groups aligned with incumbent U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat, Hellenthal said. The money appears to have knocked down the well-funded Sullivan’s standing among Republican voters, boosting Treadwell’s chances in spite of his campaign’s struggles to raise money.

Begich, Hellenthal added, has “got to be chuckling.”

“Sullivan’s got as much money as Begich’s got. And Treadwell’s got almost nothing except Treadwell’s checkbook,” Hellenthal said. “Yet they’re in a dead heat.”

The Alaska Democratic Party released its own statement publicizing Sullivan’s attack, quoting Chair Mike Wenstrup as saying, “It already was hard to tell Sullivan and Treadwell apart, but it’s impossible now that they’ve covered themselves with mud.”

Another sign the Republican race is tight, Hellenthal added, is the selective release of polling data by Gov. Sean Parnell’s re-election campaign.

Political blogger Amanda Coyne this week published data from Parnell’s Maryland polling firm showing Sullivan would beat Begich by 5 percentage points in the November election.

Coyne did not cite her source but a spokesman for Parnell’s campaign, Luke Miller, acknowledged the campaign had authorized its pollster to sell data from a single question, if the pollster chose to do so.

Hellenthal pointed out that Parnell’s campaign had probably polled the Republican primary too, as well as a hypothetical general election matchup between Treadwell and Begich.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘Hey, Sullivan beats Begich by 5 percent.’ But did Treadwell beat Begich by 10? And if so, what was the Republican primary? That’s on their poll too,” Hellenthal said. “They didn’t just run the Sullivan-Begich numbers.”

Sullivan worked in Parnell’s administration, most recently as the state’s natural resources commissioner, before declaring his Senate candidacy in October.

Miller, the Parnell spokesman, did not respond to a question about whether Parnell supports a particular Senate candidate in the Republican primary. He also did not respond to questions about whether the Parnell campaign’s poll included questions about the Republican primary race, or a hypothetical general election matchup between Begich and Treadwell.

Sullivan has a strong fiscal advantage in the race, with $1.7 million in the bank at the end of June, compared to $170,000 for Treadwell and $300,000 for Miller.

Still, Sullivan could get some help from Outside. The chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, a Washington, D.C.-based group that works to elect GOP members to the U.S. Senate, said Thursday that the group may still get involved in Alaska's Republican primary.

The group hasn't endorsed a candidate in the race but its chair and vice chair have both appeared at a fundraiser for Sullivan, and the chair, Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, said Thursday that the "conventional wisdom" is that Sullivan is stronger than his opponents, according to the political website The Hill.

"We reserve the right to endorse and do whatever activity we want," Moran said, according to The Hill.