A new campaign ad from Democratic Sen. Mark Begich spotlights his relationship with Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, saying the two vote together as much as 80 percent of the time.
But Murkowski is pushing back, saying that in spite of their cooperation on key Alaska issues, she and Begich are not as close as the ad would lead listeners to believe.
"Let's just put it this way: You can make the numbers work to your advantage," Murkowski said in a phone interview Tuesday. While the two may agree on many Alaska-specific matters, she said, when it comes to national issues, "there is a real departure between where Mark stands and where I stand."
Begich, who was first elected to the Senate in 2008, is locked in a tight re-election battle with three Republicans.
His new 60-second radio spot features Skip Nelson, who says he flew fighter jets in Vietnam and the Gulf War and now runs an aviation safety business at Anchorage's Merrill Field.
Nelson praises Begich's support for his industry and notes that Murkowski also has "a deep understanding of aviation."
"Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich vote as much as 80 percent of the time together — that's healthy for Alaska. I have a great dislike for partisan politics," Nelson says. "I think Lisa and Mark are a great team for Alaska. I'd like to keep them there."
According to Begich's campaign, the 80 percent figure — actually 80.8 percent, or 148 out of 183 votes — represents all of this year's Senate roll call votes when both senators were present. (Roll call votes are those in which each senator's position is recorded.)
The two vote together more often than any other Democrat-Republican Senate pair in the country, a spokesman for Begich pointed out, citing a separate set of figures compiled by the website OpenCongress — though those figures reach all the way back to the beginning of 2013 and say that Alaska's senators voted together 65 percent of the time, as opposed to the 80 percent cited in Begich's ad.
The spokesman for Begich, Max Croes, also cited an array of national issues on which the two senators are aligned, from their support for comprehensive immigration reform and abortion rights to preserving Second Amendment rights, to voting for a bill that aims to protect workers from pay discrimination based on race, gender or other factors.
"This record shows that Alaska's team in Washington works together to represent the state," Croes wrote in an email.
Murkowski said that she'd been fielding questions from people who had heard Begich's radio ad. She told them: "It's how you shape the numbers here."
She said the Senate has been taking lots of "procedural votes" votes this year, rather than votes on serious issues, and that her willingness to allow up or down votes on some of President Barack Obama's judiciary nominees — rather than trying to stop them early in the confirmation process — had influenced the numbers cited by Begich's campaign.
She referred to numbers emailed to Alaska Dispatch News by the National Republican Senatorial Committee. When votes are included back to 2009, Begich's votes line up with Murkowski's only 60 percent of the time, said Brad Dayspring, an NRSC spokesman, citing figures that he said his group had gathered from a company called Congressional Quarterly.
"It's the only reasonable way to measure this kind of thing," Dayspring said in an email.
Begich spokesman Croes pointed out that the NRSC consistently attacks Begich for voting with Obama 97 percent of the time, which relies on data only from 2013 — data that also shows Murkowski sides with the president 72 percent of the time, Croes said.
"If the NRSC is saying our analysis is insufficient, would they now say the same about the 97 percent claim?" Croes wrote in an email.
Murkowski has said she wants a Republican to replace Begich, but she has also praised the work of her Democratic counterpart.
She said Tuesday that the two had cooperated on Alaska-specific work, such as trying to stop the Air Force from moving a squadron of fighter jets from Fairbanks to Anchorage and pushing against a proposal that would have increased costs to rural communities for mail delivery.
But she said she differs with Begich on national issues, and when it comes to their positions on "the appropriate role of government" in people's lives, "that's where you're going to see a distinction."
Murkowski cited her vote against the president's health care overhaul, her opposition to the Dodd-Frank bill that tightened regulation of Wall Street, and a failed measure she sponsored in 2010 that would have revoked the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to police greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act — all issues on which she split with Begich.
Even on Tuesday, she and Begich differed on a Senate vote to confirm an Obama nominee to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, whom she said had made "very discouraging" comments about the use of coal for power generation.
"I voted against him, and Mark hung with his party," Murkowski said.
Begich's radio ad has also drawn attention from one of his three serious Republican opponents. Joe Miller uses the 80 percent figure in a press release and video attacking his own rivals in the Aug. 19 GOP primary, Dan Sullivan and Mead Treadwell.
Miller's rationale is that both Treadwell and Sullivan supported Murkowski when she beat him as a write-in candidate in the 2010 Senate race.
"I just don't believe that most Republican primary voters are going to buy my opponents' conservative shtick when they have no problem supporting someone who is 80 percent with Begich," Miller is quoted as saying in the press release.
The press release cited a news article in which Treadwell said he voted for Murkowski in 2010, as well as other news stories describing Sullivan's involvement in the vote count in 2010, when he was attorney general.
Treadwell's campaign did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for Sullivan said in a text message that Sullivan had remained neutral in the 2010 election.
Begich's radio ad is not his first effort in his re-election campaign to tie himself to a Republican.
An earlier television ad highlights his support from another GOP politician: former North Star Borough Mayor Jim Whitaker.
Kyle Kohli, an Anchorage-based spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said Begich is making efforts to "recast himself as a moderate before this November," adding that the Democratic senator is "voting with President Obama 97 percent of the time."
"He's finding out that his liberal record in the U.S. Senate is not playing well in Alaska," Kohli said in a phone interview.
Croes said in an email that the Begich campaign is airing its most recent ad "because we're committed to letting Alaskans share their reasons for supporting Mark."
"Mark Begich is honored to have the support of Alaskans from a variety of backgrounds and political beliefs who, like Skip Nelson, know Sen. Begich, Sen. Murkowski and Congressman (Don) Young have worked together to deliver results for Alaska," Croes said.