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Outside groups, campaigns gearing up for high-stakes US Senate race

Nathaniel Herz

Dan Sullivan needed a cough drop.

Less than 12 hours after winning the Republican Party’s U.S. Senate primary in Alaska, Sullivan no longer had a voice -- it had been claimed by the final days of the campaign.

“Won the election last night, lost my voice,” he said in a hoarse whisper. “I think that was indicative of our campaign -- not to leave one ounce of energy left.”

But even before Sullivan spoke from his campaign office Wednesday in Anchorage’s Spenard neighborhood, a high-stakes general election campaign had already begun, with a salvo of attacks heading his way starting just before 1 a.m.

A Washington, D.C.-based operative with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee clicked the send button on an email press release at 4:53 a.m. EDT. And by 7:30 a.m. in Alaska, a super PAC aligned with Democratic incumbent U.S. Sen. Mark Begich had announced a new television ad attacking Sullivan to begin running Thursday.

The lead-in to the GOP primary has already racked up an unprecedented $15 million in spending from the Republican candidates, Begich and allied groups.

Much of that money has gone toward the more than 30,000 television advertisements that have flooded Alaska’s airwaves. But the Senate campaign is only just starting: No fewer than five groups independent of the candidates have announced or disclosed new campaign spending this week aimed at influencing the results of the general election.

Sarah Bryner, the research director at the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C., said Alaskans should expect the race to get even more contentious, as it figures into a national battle over Democrats’ tenuous control of the Senate.

“It will get worse. There’s a lot at stake with this Senate election,” Bryner said in a phone interview Wednesday. “And the Alaska seat is one that both parties really think that they can get.”

The independent groups active in the Alaska Senate race this week include:

-- Crossroads GPS, a so-called “dark money” group that doesn’t disclose its donors. The Washington-based group, co-founded by Republican strategist Karl Rove, launched a TV ad Wednesday targeting Begich over what it says is a pay differential between the men and women who work in his Senate office. It’s part of a $1.25 million purchase of ad time by Crossroads GPS that covers two weeks, according to Begich’s campaign.

-- Put Alaska First, an Anchorage-based super PAC that’s funded almost entirely by another Washington-based super PAC, Senate Majority PAC, that tries to elect Democrats to the Senate. Put Alaska First on Wednesday morning announced a new television ad to start running this week, backed by $250,000 in spending, alleging that Sullivan supported the controversial Pebble mine project in Southwest Alaska.

-- The political arm of Planned Parenthood, the nonprofit organization that provides access to reproductive health services. The group is spending $65,000, according to the National Journal, on a digital campaign attacking Sullivan over his opposition to abortion. It started Wednesday and is running on social media and the websites of Alaska Dispatch News and the Juneau Empire, according to the group.

-- CounterPAC, a super PAC based in California that advocates for disclosure of the donors to “dark money” groups. CounterPAC is launching a television ad campaign starting Thursday that’s backed by at least $23,000, according to a spokesman and to filings with the Federal Communications Commission.

-- Alaska SalmonPAC, an Anchorage-based independent group backing Begich that has received almost all its financial support from the Washington, D.C.-based League of Conservation Voters. SalmonPAC spent $60,000 on voter registration mailers that arrived at households earlier this week, according to treasurer Andy Moderow.

Bryner said she expected heavy spending to continue from Put Alaska First and from Crossroads GPS and an affiliated group, American Crossroads. Americans for Prosperity -- a conservative group heavily funded by the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers -- is also likely to be a big spender, Bryner said.

The group is reported to have a $125 million budget this year.

Its Alaska branch held a "kickoff event" this month and made automatic telephone calls Monday urging recipients to contact Begich's office to push for lower taxes. But a local spokesman for the group, Ryan McKee, declined to comment.

Begich’s own campaign was planning a new advertising campaign on TV and in other media that will likely begin Thursday, a spokesman said. Sullivan’s campaign was running television ads Wednesday and will stay on the air through November, campaign manager Ben Sparks said.

Both candidates spent Wednesday outlining their plans for the general election campaign.

Begich spoke at noon at a kickoff event at the Hotel Captain Cook, where about 120 supporters lunched on chicken and broccoli as he and his wife, Deborah Bonito, spoke to the themes of the campaign: increasing the minimum wage, fighting domestic violence, aiding veterans and promoting Alaska’s fisheries.

“Now, the real work begins,” Begich said. “If you look at it as a boxing match, we’re probably just at round one, maybe round two.”

Branding Sullivan as “Karl Rove’s handpicked choice,” Begich said outside groups like Crossroads GPS “have no interests in Alaska’s interests.”

At an interview at his campaign office, Sullivan walked through his own themes for the general election: protecting veterans, turning around the state’s high rates of domestic violence and sexual assault, and fighting what he described as the “overreach” of President Barack Obama’s administration.

“This is about putting Alaska on the right track,” he said. “This is a Senate race that has huge implications not only for the state but for the direction of the country.”

Sullivan described Begich as a “rubber stamp” for the Obama administration. Sullivan said he expected outside interests to “funnel tons of money” to aid Begich, to help protect the Democratic Senate majority.

Sullivan and Begich both said their campaigns would rely on ground games -- the networks of paid staffers and volunteers across the state that will work with the parties and candidates.

The Alaska Democratic Party is prioritizing Begich’s campaign, spokesman Zack Fields said Wednesday, and has field offices in 14 locations across Alaska, from Anchorage and Fairbanks to Ketchikan, Dillingham and Nome.

The party has dozens of staffers and spent $500,000 last month, according to a Wednesday filing with the Federal Elections Commission.

“We’ve been knocking on doors and phone banking for months now,” Fields said. “We’re going to continue to run a grassroots campaign all the way up until the election.”

The Republican National Committee, meanwhile, has four offices and 11 staffers, which spokesman Kyle Kohli said was the largest and earliest investment ever made by the group for an Alaska election.

“The RNC is putting forth the resources we have determined we need to win in Alaska,” he said in a phone interview.

Sullivan’s campaign worked separately from the Republican National Committee through Tuesday’s primary election, but the operations will now merge, along with the re-election campaign of Republican Gov. Sean Parnell.

The candidates themselves will keep to their grueling schedules. Begich traveled to the Kenai Peninsula after his campaign kickoff Wednesday, then heads to Fairbanks on Thursday and to Valdez and Cordova on Saturday, according to a campaign spokesman.

Sullivan, who wrapped up his primary campaign with a 750-mile RV tour, has tentatively scheduled trips to the Alaska State Fair on Friday and to the Kenai Peninsula on Saturday.

Both said they would be working tirelessly through November.

“There’s no campaign that’s going to out-hustle us,” Sullivan said.

At his own kickoff, Begich told his opponent: “Bring it on.”

“Bring it on,” he said again. “I’ll talk to you until you’re blue in the face about everything I have done to make sure Alaska’s a better place.”