A Washington, D.C.-based independent political action committee this week launched its second ad against Alaska Sen. Mark Begich that seeks to tie him to the ongoing scandal with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs health care system.
The ad is getting $450,000 in air time from American Crossroads, the conservative "super PAC" that former President George W. Bush strategist Karl Rove helped found.
It's part of a $7 million campaign planned by American Crossroads and an affiliated group, Crossroads GPS, through the end of October, according to figures provided by a spokesman.
Begich's campaign says it's responding with new ads of its own, which began running Friday.
The 30-second Crossroads spot cuts between four men, all identified by subtitles as military veterans, as they make statements about Begich and veterans issues.
"Sen. Begich is on the Veterans Affairs Committee, and he's not looking out for us," says one, who the ad identifies as Sgt. Dan Coffey. "Sen. Begich is ignoring people that can't help him."
In response to the ad, a spokesman for Begich's campaign emailed a 13-page "fact check" that included four full pages pushing back against Coffey's claim that "he's not looking out for us."
Those pages include links to news stories about how Begich has questioned and pressed VA officials about problems at the agency's Anchorage office.
"Begich has been elbow-deep in trying to find solutions to these problems and keeping the pressure on the VA nationally and the VA in Anchorage to improve the care Alaska's veterans are getting," said the spokesman, Max Croes.
One of the veterans who appears in the Crossroads ad, Virgil Umphenour, 72, said in a phone interview that he agreed to address the VA's service in Fairbanks at the request of Rhonda Boyles, a former Fairbanks borough mayor.
Umphenour, who said he is a former member of the Marine Corps and the Army, is pictured next to the Chena River in downtown Fairbanks, wearing a hat that says "Vietnam veteran."
After another man in the video describes the VA scandal as "nothing new," it cuts to Umphenour, who says: "This is absolutely disgusting, is what I thought."
Umphenour said he was aggravated with delays and slow treatment provided by the VA health care system, which, he added, contributed to the recent death of his brother. Asked about Begich's role, Umphenour said: "I don't know if I necessarily hold Mark Begich accountable for that."
But he added that Begich "needs to address the issue."
"I know I sure as hell would address it if I were in that position," Umphenour said.
Begich's campaign Friday released two response ads -- one for television and one for radio -- that include the voice of a man who says his name is Bryan Box. Box, who says he served in the Army in Afghanistan, refers to an article from the nonpartisan website Factcheck.org headlined "Twisting Begich's response to the VA scandal." The article says Crossroads' first VA attack ad -- which was released last month and is also getting $450,000 in air time -- "misuses a quote" and "conflates two separate management problems" to suggest that Begich isn't taking the VA scandal seriously. Box says Begich recognized problems with delays four years ago and forced the VA to fix them, as a graphic flashes citing a drop in the size of a VA waiting list from 900 to "almost 0."
An internal audit released this week by the VA found that in Anchorage, 99 percent of veterans could schedule appointments within 30 days.
Asked about the criticisms in the Factcheck.org article, a spokesman for Crossroads, Paul Lindsay, referred the question to a local consultant, Art Hackney.
Hackney wrote in an email: "As someone who has watched Begich throughout his career and is proud to be an Alaska-based consultant and strategist to American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, it's this simple: Alaskans expect leadership from their elected officials, and Begich's response as this scandal unfolded was typical of how out-of-touch he is with real leadership."
Crossroads' ads will run through the end of June in Alaska, Lindsay said. There's also $5.5 million more in air time that the group has reserved between Sept. 8 and Oct. 26, he added.
Asked if Crossroads planned any more spending during the summer, Lindsay said: "Obviously, this is a race and a campaign that we're focused on, and we're monitoring very closely."
Croes, Begich's spokesman, said the senator's response ads began airing Friday. He added that the campaign had made a "statewide buy" of a "significant amount" but wouldn't say how much money it was spending.
Reach Nathaniel Herz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4311.