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With 2 weeks to go, Begich makes final stand in Alaska's US Senate race

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published October 19, 2014

On Thursday morning, as the sun rose above the Chugach Mountains east of Anchorage, incumbent Alaska U.S. Sen. Mark Begich called in to a local talk radio show, kicking off yet another day full of politicking, with less than three weeks left until the election.

It was the first of two talk show appearances for Begich, a Democrat. Trailing in the polls against Republican opponent Dan Sullivan, Begich is doing everything he can to remind voters that in spite of what they see on their TVs and Facebook feeds, he is just a regular Alaska guy who takes orders from his constituents -- not from President Barack Obama or from Sen. Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who leads the party's Senate majority.

No audience is too small; almost no opportunity gets turned down. One night you might find Begich at Homer's Salty Dawg Saloon, sipping beers with the locals. The next day, he may be flying to a far-flung village. On Tuesday night, Begich was in his hometown of Anchorage telling the tale of how he met his wife. At the storytelling forum "Arctic Entries," Begich, 52, shared a blown-up photo with the crowd of nearly 700, showing them just how heinous -- and endearing -- his hair was in his mid-20s.

But Begich is running out of time. And the simple message from Sullivan and his fellow Republicans -- that Obama, Reid and Begich have failed to effectively wield their power to improve Alaskans' lives -- is proving particularly potent in the race.

As Begich's GOP opponent, Sullivan is a first-time candidate who has served as Alaska's attorney general and natural resources commissioner. He's led a carefully scheduled, choreographed tour across the state, while his campaign staff pushes a steady stream of press releases with subject lines like "Mark Begich: All-In on Obama's Reckless Agenda" and "Mark Begich: Loyal Obama Foot Soldier."

Part of that campaign strategy, Begich supporters argue, involves making Sullivan less accessible to the public and media. They also claim he's far too vague on sharing his thoughts on crucial issues when compared to the sitting senator.

The Sullivan campaign denies those claims, saying Begich's campaign is simply frustrated that their guy is running behind.

Begich's struggle to hold his Senate seat amounts, in part, to a basic numbers game.

"He's doing everything he can do," said Larry Sabato, a political scientist and national pundit who on Thursday moved his rating of the Alaska Senate race from "tossup" to "leans Republican."

"He's a Democrat, in a red state, in a red year," Sabato added, with voters ready to express their frustrations after six years of Obama's presidency.

Alaska has far more registered Republican voters than Democrats. But there are more voters who haven't proclaimed an allegiance to either party than who have registered with the two parties combined. Winning a big enough share of that group could still provide Begich with a path to victory.

"Political pundits in Washington or the East Coast are going to say that Mark Begich doesn't stand a chance because this is Alaska," said Max Croes, a Begich spokesman. "Mark Begich is going to win re-election because this is Alaska."

Big money and ground game

Each campaign has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into TV commercials, which will continue through Election Day. Some Outside groups and super PACs have paid as much as $20,000 for a single 30-second ad.

Republicans are unlikely to shift their focus away from tying Begich to Obama and Washington, D.C., said Ron Bonjean, a consultant to the independent advertising arm of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

"The message is going to be very consistent: that Dan Sullivan is the best candidate to represent Alaska, and that Mark Begich is out of touch and is consistently siding with Obama in most of his votes," Bonjean said.

The Democrats, meanwhile, will try to highlight areas where there are sharp distinctions between Begich and Sullivan, like abortion -- which Sullivan opposes except in cases of rape or incest, or if the mother's life is in danger -- and local issues like the proposed Pebble Mine in Southwest Alaska. Begich opposes the gold and copper mine on the grounds that it could endanger the nearby world-class salmon fishery, while Sullivan says federal environmental regulators have acted too quickly to stop the mine's development.

Between Sept. 26 and Oct. 9, 44 percent of Democratic ads in the Alaska Senate race took on abortion, while 42 percent of Republican ads focused on deficits and budgeting, according to Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political television advertising nationwide.

As Election Day draws closer, the campaigns are trying to connect with Alaskans in new ways, moving beyond TV to radio, digital ad campaigns -- YouTube's inventory is swollen to bursting -- sheafs of mailers, and phone calls.

Begich and the outside groups supporting him have run far more ads over the course of the campaign, but the margin has narrowed over the last few weeks. Begich's chances on Election Day are more likely to hinge on the performance of his campaign's vaunted ground game, which has some 90 paid staff around the state and which, Begich claims, has knocked on every door in rural Alaska.

In contrast, Sullivan's coordinated campaign with the Republican Party boasts only about 15 staff.

Unscripted interactions

In an election year in which Republicans are doing everything they can to tie Begich to an unpopular president, the Democrat needs as much direct contact and face time with Alaskans as he can get. That could help him counter the Republicans' narrative and win over more of the 65 percent of registered voters in the state who disapprove of Obama, according to a recent CNN poll.

Since Begich is comfortable on his feet, unscripted interactions like debates and forums present some of his best remaining chances to mix up the race, while presenting risk for Sullivan.

The Republican challenger has charisma, but he can come off to voters as less polished and comfortable when placed in front of a camera. While Sullivan has held appointed positions in which he's presided over big initiatives and made big decisions, he has never held elected office.

That's a double-edged sword: On the one hand, he lacks a voting record that his opponents can scrutinize, criticize and mine for contradictions with his current positions. But an absent voting record means that on some issues, he appears to lack the fluency and decisiveness of his opponent.

Begich boasts 15 years as a voting politician, beginning when he was elected to the Anchorage Assembly at age 26. He later served two terms as Anchorage's mayor before voters elected him to the U.S. Senate in 2008. Alaskans should expect to hear about his years in elected office many times during the final stretch of the campaign.

In the last two weeks before Election Day, there are seven events at which both candidates are scheduled to appear. They include five forums and a pair of debates, with one stretch at the end of the month that will see Begich and Sullivan appear together on four consecutive days.

Sullivan's playbook boils down to a single commandment: Don't mess up. His campaign is unlikely to be debuting any flashy new ads or taking any risky, attention-grabbing positions. Like Begich, Sullivan will spend as much time as possible talking to Alaskans between now and Election Day.

"We have had a very consistent message, and our campaign has not deviated from that," said Ben Sparks, Sullivan's campaign manager. "We'll continue doing what we've been doing for the final weeks of this race."

‘Alaska is built for surprises’

There are still a few uncertainties, like the impact of the three initiatives on this year's state ballot, which could draw out more liberal-leaning Alaskans to vote for an increase in the minimum wage or to legalize marijuana, boosting Begich's numbers.

And there's also the question of the ongoing Alaska National Guard scandal, which now dogs Republican Gov. Sean Parnell in the final stretch of his campaign against challenger Bill Walker. At issue is how Parnell reacted over the last several years to allegations of sexual assaults and other criminal activity within the guard.

While there's no evidence linking Sullivan to wrongdoing, he is a former state official, and Democrats hope his association with the Parnell administration will hurt Sullivan's election chances.

But barring any last-minute surprises, Sabato, the political scientist, said Begich still remains challenged by one overriding factor: the natural partisan dynamics of the state.

Alaska is home to 135,000 registered Republicans -- nearly double the state's 70,000 Democrats.

But then there's everybody else -- the 277,000 registered Alaska voters who aren't affiliated with any party. That group is what makes elections in Alaska notoriously difficult to predict.

"We certainly don't rule out the possibility of surprise," Sabato said. "A state like Alaska is built for surprises."