Mark Begich was discouraged and ready to drop out of the race for Alaska governor when a frontyard fundraiser for a group of women candidates changed his mind and his approach.
A low-quality cell phone video captured the moment as Begich, who had almost lost his voice, abandoned campaign talking points and spoke against President Trump and for living wages and child-care support.
The reaction to the video and his own emotions after his unfiltered comments convinced him to stay in the race and remade his campaign. Now Begich hopes to catch on as anti-Trump Democrats have in other parts of the country, using social media to activate disaffected voters and true believers.
I've known Begich and his family since childhood. Before joining the ADN as a columnist I worked with him in politics and as a consultant when he was Anchorage mayor and U.S. senator. That background gives me access, but also a sympathetic point of view readers should be aware of.
This story is more than campaign stagecraft. I saw some of it unfolding. In August, Begich was truly demoralized after losing key union endorsements and receiving a drumbeat of calls from former supporters and friends urging him to quit.
"I had made a decision that I don't need this pain and agony anymore of people beating on me every day, making my wife's life miserable, and mine, because they're just political insiders that can't make decisions about the future of this state, they're just political," he said Monday.
"And I decided, in that split moment, I'm just going to say what I think, and they can take it or leave it. And it dawned on me that I never heard Governor Walker counter-punch President Trump on the things that matter," he said.
Speaking to Alaska Women for Political Action, in Sen. Berta Gardner's East Anchorage yard, he said, "Part of the job of a governor also is to speak out when a president is wrong, because it affects us all. You cannot be silent. You cannot sit there and hope it all works out."
Most political observers believe Begich shares supporters with Walker, an independent, and that the split will give victory to Republican former state Sen. Mike Dunleavy. A deadline passed Sept. 4 for Begich to decide if he would remove his name from the ballot and end the three-way campaign.
Begich has said Walker is unelectable because of his action to reduce Alaska Permanent Fund dividends. His pitch had been that he instead should carry the banner for moderates against the conservative Dunleavy.
But now Begich is speaking a new language, one that hasn't been heard much from mainstream statewide campaigns in Alaska: Attacking a Republican president, supporting Proposition 1 to protect salmon habitat, and emphasizing support for the working poor.
Liberal Democrats raising populist issues on social media have recently managed shocking upsets in several elections outside Alaska. It seems to be working even in Texas, where Democrat Beto O'Rourke is threatening Sen. Ted Cruz — Cruz himself says so.
Could it work here, where elections rarely turn on national moods?
"I'm not in the habit of questioning Begich's instinct for things like this," said pollster Ivan Moore, who is not working for any candidate or proposition campaign this year. "If the wave comes, he wants to be able to catch it."
Moore noted that to win in the three-way race Begich needs 38 percent of the vote. He said his polling shows Trump is disliked by 45 percent of Alaska voters.
The moment could also bring out new voters. Turnout in the August primary was low. But the November election will come after Permanent Fund dividends arrive in October, with Democrats potentially energized in a national anti-Trump movement.
On the other hand, Begich lags the other two candidates in fundraising. Walker won key endorsements from the AFL-CIO and NEA-Alaska. Begich is accustomed to campaigning with support from union voter identification and turn-out operations.
But now he believes social media and the right message could cancel those advantages. In the current election cycle nationally, campaigns on the left and right — but not in the middle — have had powerful impact with viral videos carrying sharp messages.
"They're making handmade signs around the state," Begich said. "They're making them and putting them out. Mark Begich for salmon. Mark Begich for choice."
Moore said Alaska is good ground for an insurgent campaign, because voters here are less committed to religious, racial or parties identities than in other states. More voters choose candidates based on what they hear during campaigns.
But Alaska also is a conservative state in which Trump won by 14 percentage points. The salmon initiative Begich is supporting is powerfully opposed by the resource industry and business groups he has always courted in the past.
On Monday, he spoke in favor of the initiative to the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce, where he could expect few sympathetic ears. He said he didn't prepare and enjoyed firing back at Dunleavy and Walker on the spot, saying they failed to pass legislation that would have headed off the initiative.
"I listened to these guys ramble on about their bull***t and I said, 'You know what, I'm not taking this anymore,' " Begich said. "There's a freedom of 'just do it.' "
Begich is having fun. He is enjoying channeling the values of liberal Alaskans who usually have to compromise when they vote. Whether there are enough of them to win an election I don't know, but I don't think Begich will drop out now. He feels he is part of a movement.
That started at Gardner's house. Begich said the women candidates inspired him. Many had little chance to win, but they still spoke from the heart.
"I just listened to them, and I thought, 'This is what it is about,' " he said. "It's not about who has the power. It's who is going to deliver for those who don't have the power. And I decided, screw it. Let's go. Let's pull this lever back hard."
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