Incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Begich faced his Republican challenger, Dan Sullivan, for the first time Wednesday evening in a debate in Anchorage, with the two candidates drawing sharp distinctions between their visions of the state’s future and its path over the nearly six years since Begich was elected.
The contrast was stark, with Begich seeking voters’ support for another term in Washington, D.C., where he said he’d worked with other lawmakers to push forward pragmatic solutions to challenges like health care costs, the nation’s immigration crisis, and its slow economic recovery from the 2008 recession.
Begich’s attitude was perhaps best summarized by remarks in his closing statement.
“I want to talk about what’s possible,” he said. “At the end of the day, I’m going to sit down with people, listen to folks, try to find that common thread that binds us.”
Sullivan, meanwhile, laid out a more pessimistic view, saying people in Alaska were losing hope and that Begich had failed to reverse what Sullivan described as an unsustainable path for nation. Voters should choose him, Sullivan added, because “we’re running out of time.”
“The vast majority of Alaskans think that our country is headed in the wrong direction,” Sullivan said. “The American dream has become the American mirage.”
The debate, held in a theater at the University of Alaska Anchorage before a lively crowd of 175 people, was the first between the two general-election candidates, and it came barely a week after Sullivan proclaimed victory in the Republican primary -- and still before the state’s deadline to receive absentee ballots.
It was hosted by United for Liberty, a coalition of right-leaning groups whose vision statement says that current and future generations will have a higher quality of life “when we have replaced government overregulation with increased personal responsibility.”
Moderator David Cuddy steered the two men through a series of seven questions they received in advance, then each candidate issued two of his own questions to the other.
Topics ranged from fisheries to health care and foreign affairs, but the candidates repeatedly returned to similar themes.
Begich touted his cooperation with politicians on both sides of the aisle, while Sullivan characterized Begich as a “rubber stamp” and “loyal foot soldier” for failed policies pushed by two prominent national Democrats: President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
On immigration, Begich touted his vote last year for a comprehensive reform bill, which also got the support of Republicans like Florida’s Marco Rubio and Arizona’s John McCain.
“We have to find common ground to get a solution,” Begich said.
Sullivan, meanwhile, responded by cautioning against what he called the Obama administration’s “lawless” approach, throwing in a line cited previously by one of his primary opponents, Joe Miller: “We are a nation of laws.”
When it came time for the candidates to ask their own questions, Begich hit Sullivan on issues with resonance to the libertarian-leaning crowd: Sullivan’s advocacy on behalf of genetically modified crops when he served in the U.S. Department of State under President George W. Bush, and Sullivan’s stance on the anti-terrorism law known as the Patriot Act, which has been criticized for allowing infringement of Americans’ privacy.
Begich cited three votes that he took against it, and asked Sullivan whether he would vote to reauthorize it. Sullivan responded by saying he had concerns about the law, without answering yes or no.
Sullivan, meanwhile, asked Begich if he would repeat his 2010 vote for the Affordable Care Act, often referred to as Obamacare, which Sullivan characterized as the “deciding” vote.
Begich also didn’t give a direct yes or no answer but said he did not want to go back to the days before the law, when Alaskans had difficulty getting coverage.
“It is not a perfect plan, but we need to continue to move forward and improve on it,” Begich said.
While the candidates laid out positions on weighty state and national issues, organizers also mixed in two sets of short-form questions, in which the candidates wrote their answers on whiteboards, then flipped them for the crowd to see.
One of the questions was a hardball aimed right at Begich’s chin, asking how the candidates voted on last week’s referendum on the oil tax cuts passed in 2013 by the Alaska Legislature.
Sullivan had already stated his opposition to the referendum, but Begich had refused to take a position, saying it was a “great debate” left up to voters. On Wednesday, he passed on the question again, writing “private,” underlined on his board.
Some of the short-form questions were lighthearted tests of the candidates’ Alaska knowledge, like one that asked the location of the Salty Dawg Saloon lighthouse -- Homer, though Sullivan wrote “Juneau?” -- and another that asked them to name the five current gubernatorial candidates. (Both could name Democrat Byron Mallott, Republican Sean Parnell, and independent Bill Walker, but neither identified Libertarian Carolyn Clift or Alaska Constitution Party candidate J.R. Myers.)
Other questions were serious attempts to get Begich and Sullivan to give yes or no answers to key policy questions, like whether they would support Obama if he decided to grant amnesty to illegal immigrants by executive order. (Sullivan: “No way.” Begich: “No, Congress needs to be part of it.")
While they disagreed on term limits -- Sullivan supports them, Begich doesn’t -- the whiteboard questions were about the only part of the evening where the two candidates found common ground.
Both knew that Benny Benson designed the Alaska flag, and both agreed that the state bird was the ptarmigan.