Alaska News

Begich, Sullivan make closing arguments in Alaska's US Senate race

With just days until the U.S. Senate election and more than $50 million spent to sway voters one way or the other, Dan Sullivan was talking about beer.

Amidst a meandering tour of a massive Anchorage warehouse with a local beverage distributor, Sullivan had stumbled on a meeting where the Samuel Adams brewing company was pitching next year's product line.

"I'm a huge Sam Adams fan!" said Sullivan, a former state attorney general and natural resources commissioner. "I went to college in Boston."

Dressed in combat boots and jeans -- and omitting the fact that his undergraduate degree came from Harvard University -- Sullivan gave off a relaxed, folksy vibe during Thursday morning's tour. In fact, he was nearing the final stretch of a calculated, costly, and cutthroat campaign for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Mark Begich, the incumbent Democrat.

With just a few days to go, the two candidates are making their closing arguments to a testy electorate that's been bombarded with television ads, buried in mailers, and barraged with pollsters' phone calls. And after months of accusations, facts, distortions and discussions, both campaigns still see a path to a six-year term.

Sullivan is relying on a broad-strokes campaign -- one that's painted him as a cheerfully conservative family man and veteran while relentlessly attaching his opponent to the unpopular administration of President Barack Obama and to the Democratic Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid.

Begich, meanwhile, is banking on his mastery of local issues, and his attacks on Sullivan's Alaska credentials and financial backers, being enough to negate voters' frustrations with Obama, with the president's signature health care law, and with the economy.


At 52, Begich is the son of U.S. Rep. Nick Begich, who was killed in a plane crash in 1972. After serving on the Anchorage Assemby, Begich was twice picked by voters to be the mayor of Anchorage, then was narrowly elected to the U.S. Senate in 2008 in a tight race over incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Stevens.

Begich's victory -- by 4,000 votes, or just over 1 percent -- was an upset that came one week after Stevens was found guilty on federal corruption charges, though the verdict was later thrown out.

There are no corruption charges this time around, and that means Begich faces tougher odds for his re-election campaign. Republicans outnumber Democrats in Alaska by a 2-to-1 margin -- though there are more people in the state who don't declare their allegiances to either party.

Begich has run an aggressive campaign to court those unaffiliated and independent voters, forming coalitions of women, Alaska Natives, and fishermen. And Democrats have poured money into nearly 100 staffers scattered across the state to sign up new voters and make sure they get to the polls on Election Day.

Read more: Full coverage of Alaska's 2014 elections

Begich himself has campaigned at a frenetic pace -- and sometimes drawn criticism for reaching too far with his claims. One attack ad that tried to tie Sullivan to a brutal killing in Anchorage's Mountain View neighborhood drew widespread criticism, and Begich also refused to stop running another ad that featured Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, even when Murkowski -- who's supporting Sullivan -- complained.

The last few days of his campaign will echo the last few months. On Friday, he started at 7 a.m. in the studios of a talk radio show, where he bemoaned shallow media coverage, talked about student loans and missile defense, and took veiled swipes at Sullivan -- all interspersed with commercials that blasted Begich for voting with Obama and attacked Sullivan for his opposition to abortion.

Then, Begich headed to a news conference to tout his support from the Alaska Federation of Natives -- where he and others received a Yup'ik language welcome -- before heading to the Matanuska Valley. His surrogates over the next few days will be the "big guns," according to a campaign press release Friday: Begich's mother, Pegge; his son, Jacob; and his wife, Deborah Bonito.

Sullivan's big guns, by contrast, are big-name Republicans, in a testament to Sullivan's own network and his party's focus on the Alaska race as one of a few that could flip control of the U.S. Senate away from Democrats.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the tea party favorite who pushed for a federal government shutdown last year, is stumping for Sullivan over the weekend in key areas like the Mat-Su and the Kenai Peninsula, in a bid to energize the right wing of the Republican Party. And on Monday, former presidential candidate Mitt Romney will rally with Sullivan and Gov. Sean Parnell in Anchorage.

Sullivan, 49, is an inexperienced campaigner. A native of Ohio whose grandfather founded an industrial products company that now has $4 billion in annual sales, Sullivan is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves and a former top official in the U.S. State Department.

He worked in Parnell's administration for four years before announcing his bid for Senate -- his first-ever bid for elected office. But with the help of a Virginia political strategist, Mike Dubke, Sullivan has run a disciplined, consistent campaign aimed at channeling frustrations with Obama -- though he's attracted criticism for failing to articulate clear positions on some issues, and for glossing over some elements of his service in Parnell's administration that frustrated some groups, including many Alaska Natives and fishermen.

After the warehouse tour Thursday morning, Sullivan took off for West Anchorage, where he would give a speech to a group of senior citizens at a Korean American community center. He garnered a polite round of applause for committing to advocate for open relations between the U.S. and South Korea, and a chuckle when he described raising his three daughters as "more challenging than running a Marine recon battalion."

He posed with Korean veterans, ate lunch, then made for the door, thanking the hosts in Korean on his way out.

Nathaniel Herz

Anchorage-based independent journalist Nathaniel Herz has been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Public Media. Read his newsletter, Northern Journal, at