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In U.S. Senate race, Obama remarks add fuel to Republican attacks on Begich

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published October 22, 2014

The U.S. Senate race in Alaska has featured a ferocious debate over incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Begich's record, with Republicans relentlessly casting him as a tool of President Barack Obama while Begich, meanwhile, runs television ads asserting his independence from Washington.

But a series of comments from Obama this month have complicated Begich's message, and raised the profile of the Republican attacks in the final weeks before the election.

Begich's opponents even scrambled a political operative to ambush him recently with Republicans' favored gotcha question for Democratic Senate candidates in tight races: "Did you vote for Obama in 2008 and 2012?"

Begich ignored the question at the time, though he acknowledged in an interview Wednesday that the answer is yes.

"It's a ridiculous question. Did I vote for him? Yes," Begich said.

But, he added: "I am not his candidate. I'm Mark Begich who's running for the U.S. Senate in Alaska."

Begich's response follows a pair of cringe-inducing remarks -- for Democrats -- this month from Obama, who is viewed as a liability by members of his party in battleground states. In Alaska, Obama's approval rating is at a rock-bottom 30 percent among registered voters, according to a recent CNN poll.

On the campaign trail, Begich has stressed his differences from Obama's administration, in one television commercial citing a fight he had with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, and telling the Washington Post earlier this year that he would be a "thorn" in Obama's posterior.

On Tuesday, Begich even distanced himself from his own party during a forum in Soldotna. Asked to describe why he was running as a Democrat, Begich responded that he is an "Alaska Democrat -- which is very different."

"I am pro-gun, pro oil-and-gas development," he said, adding later that he was unsure about whether he would endorse Nevada Sen. Harry Reid as the Democrats' Senate leader in the future.

Republicans have spun arguments like those as hollow, citing Begich's 97 percent record of supporting the president in a voting index compiled by Congressional Quarterly, combined with what they argue was the "deciding vote" Begich cast for Obama's Affordable Care Act.

And Begich's Republican opponent, Dan Sullivan, often derides Begich as a "loyal foot soldier" for both Obama and Reid, as well as a "rubber stamp."

Cue the president, who this week was quoted on national television describing candidates in states he lost -- a list that includes Alaska -- as "strong allies and supporters of mine.

"Some of the candidates there, it is difficult for them to have me in the state because Republicans will use that to try to fan Republican turnout," Obama said. "The bottom line is, though, these are all folks who vote with me; they have supported my agenda in Congress. They are on the right side of minimum wage, they are on the right side of fair pay, they are on the right side of rebuilding our infrastructure, they're on the right side of early childhood education."

That came after an Oct. 2 speech in which Obama said: "Make no mistake: These policies are on the ballot. Every single one of them."

Those comments acknowledge "a reality that the rest of the world already knows," said Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. But in making the comments, Dayspring added, Obama is "highlighting the deceitful way that senators like Mark Begich have tried to hide that fact from voters."

Begich, in a phone interview, dismissed Obama's comments, saying: "If you have an issue with what the president said, give him a call."

"When you talk about the issues, I've been talking about these since before he was president," Begich said.

Chris Bynoe, who answered the phone at the White House press office Wednesday, referred questions about Obama's remarks to a White House email address, which got no response.

Asked if he agreed with Obama on the issues cited by the president, Begich answered emphatically: "Those are Alaska issues!"

"Equal pay -- are you kidding? If you want to associate it because it sounds good and that's their point," Begich said, "go for it. But that's not reality.

"We have the minimum wage on the ballot" in Alaska, Begich added. "I'm sure George Bush at one point talked about early education."

Versions of the Republicans' strategy in Alaska have been playing out in many of the tight Senate races across the country. Several Democratic candidates' scores in Congressional Quarterly's presidential support index have been featured in nearly identical ads from the conservative group Americans for Prosperity.

And Republicans have flummoxed other Democratic Senate hopefuls with the question of whether they voted for Obama. In Kentucky, Alison Lundergan Grimes, who's running against Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, repeatedly dodged the question when it was posed by a newspaper editorial board, while West Virginia Democrat Natalie Tennant only acknowledged voting for "the Democratic Party" in the last presidential election.

Obama's recent remarks have only provided more fuel to the Republican attacks. In an interview, Jerry McBeath, a professor of political science at University of Alaska Fairbanks, said the comments were directed at rallying loyal Democratic "base" voters, but added that Obama probably could have used "a more felicitous wording," given the potential to alienate the moderate voters who are critical to Begich's re-election hopes.

Only about 14 percent of registered Alaska voters are Democrats, compared to 54 percent who haven't declared a party allegiance and 27 percent who are Republicans.

"I don't know what the spin doctors in the Obama administration were thinking about," McBeath said. "Maybe some Democratic voters who otherwise wouldn't turn out will turn out. But meanwhile, it's going to fortify those who believe the Obama administration is the worst thing in history that's ever happened to Alaska."

McBeath added, however, that in his view, nearly all of the attacks against Begich are partisan, not based on his stances on issues.

"I think smart voters are going to pick up on that," he said.

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