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In battle of Senate candidate platforms, Begich leads on policy details

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published October 21, 2014

In the U.S. Senate race in Alaska, one of the major-party candidates has a law degree from Georgetown and graduated from Harvard. The other didn't graduate from college.

Guess which one is running the wonkier, more policy-focused campaign?

A review shows substantial differences between the two when it comes to their published platforms. Incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, who doesn't have a college degree, has released detailed position papers on a range of issues.

His Republican challenger, former Alaska attorney general and natural resources commissioner Dan Sullivan, released a single position paper last November, saying it would be the first of many policy initiatives -- but none have emerged from his campaign since then.

"The rest of them are on the campaign trail," Sullivan said in an interview Sunday, adding that he regularly addresses policy issues in his daily stump speeches. "And you're welcome to join us."

While the campaigns pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into 30-second television commercials filled with buzzwords and accusations, the candidates' platforms offer voters more detailed information on the positions held by Begich and Sullivan, and the contrasts between them.

Sullivan's published platform consists primarily of eight pages on his campaign website outlining his stances on specific issues -- and his contrasts with Begich and President Barack Obama -- plus the position paper he released last year on veterans affairs. But beyond the paper, Sullivan's stances are often broad and vague, and his web pages don't cite much specific legislation he'd push if he were elected.

A section of Begich's website devoted to issues from energy to privacy and civil rights also features more general principles than specific ideas. But over the last month, his campaign has also released a series of platform planks on subjects ranging from Arctic policy to rural development and subsistence rights -- offering some political meat for media and voters to chew on.

The contrast between Begich and Sullivan when it comes to policy is "palpable," said Steve Haycox, emeritus professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

"When you listen to Sullivan in a long interview, it does sound superficial -- or at least a concentration on a similar level of message," Haycox said. "Where with Begich, he's into the details all the time -- and sometimes to the point where you wonder if he's boring some of the audience."

Some of the differences between them could be expected -- Begich has spent nearly six years in the Senate, voting on legislation and crafting some of his own, and he can tap his own experience and staff for policy expertise.

Before starting his own campaign, Sullivan worked in executive branch positions, where he tackled his own policy initiatives, though in far narrower and less public roles.

In interviews, the two candidates gave different takes on the importance of laying out a specific, extensive policy agenda.

Sullivan downplayed the value of his opponent's proposals and maintained Begich's plans amount to nothing more than hot air from the incumbent senator.

"Cramming right now, at the end of the election cycle, with new policy papers, when you've been in the Senate leadership for six years, doesn't impress many people," Sullivan said. "I'm running on a record of getting big things done, of rolling up my sleeves on some of the biggest challenges we have in Alaska."

Asked to articulate his own platform, Sullivan contrasted his own views with Begich's and the Obama administration's, and described hearing from Alaskans frustrated by "federal overreach" who "see the country going in the wrong direction."

At the same time, Sullivan added, "it's the sense of optimism and opportunity that we're really starting to turn things around in Alaska," citing increased investment in natural gas production in Cook Inlet and the new oil tax regime passed by the state Legislature and signed by Gov. Sean Parnell last year.

"It's opportunity, it's certainly jobs, it's more energy production," Sullivan said. "I've led on those."

Sullivan expands on some of his views on his website, as well, though without much detail. His "jobs and the economy" section, for example, lays out a critique of Obama and cites the national debt, then adds: "We must enact sound fiscal policy that promotes innovation and job growth, reins in federal spending, and reforms the tax code." But the page contains no examples of legislation or specific policy measures that Sullivan supports, and there are few on his seven other issue web pages -- with the exception of the one dedicated to military and veterans affairs.

That page includes a link to Sullivan's seven-page policy paper, released last November, outlining the steps he'd take to reform the scandal plagued U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and to improve care for veterans. It's chock full of recommendations for policy and staffing changes, and tosses around terms like "macroeconomic" and "implementation," but it's the only paper of its kind published by Sullivan's campaign, despite his statement in a press release at the time that it would be "the first of many campaign policy initiatives on crucial issues for Alaska."

Like Sullivan, Begich has several pages on his own website outlining his views on an array of issues, from fishing to education to retirement security.

Those views are often broad, though they frequently highlight efforts or legislation that Begich has pushed during his term in the Senate.

But then there's the sheaf of plans Begich has released detailing his agenda if he were re-elected to a second six-year term -- eight in total, with at least one more to come, on topics ranging from development and education in rural communities, to pushing for more energy development in Alaska, to reforming campaign finance laws.

What he often hears from constituents, Begich said in an interview Monday, is: "OK, we know what you've done. What are you going to do?"

"And so our position papers are very detailed," he said. "I think there's a big difference, because Dan's are more global statements, kind of bumper-sticker. They're not as detailed."

Begich's papers offer ample material for policy-focused constituents, with references to things like the Experimental Price Index for the Elderly and the "small boat discharge waiver."

There are examples of specific pieces of legislation he supports -- though some are clear long shots, like a constitutional amendment to give Congress new authority to regulate campaign donations and spending.

Other elements of Begich's plans, though, are less concrete, or even symbolic -- one piece of Begich's plan for women and families entails calling on Parnell to "increase penalties for gender-based wage discrimination," while a component of Begich's Arctic plan says he will "utilize the talents" of former Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, who was recently named as a special adviser on Arctic issues by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Asked about Sullivan's criticisms that Begich has only passed two bills through the Senate and won't be able to deliver on the goals outlined in his policy papers, Begich responded: "This is someone who doesn't understand how the legislative process works."

Begich pointed to other avenues he'd used to push through his priorities, like pressuring the Obama administration or by floating amendments in Senate committees.

"I don't need my name on a bill," Begich said. "I can point to time after time that I've been able to get stuff done."

Ultimately, voters will decide which of the candidates' campaign promises and platforms are most credible and compelling. Haycox, the UAA history professor, said he thinks Alaskans are split when it comes to demanding details from their candidates.

"There is a cohort of the electorate that wants that, and appreciates it, but it's not a majority," Haycox said. "I think that a large part of the electorate responds very positively to that simple, conservative message -- and the more detail that the Begich campaign is giving them, that simply confirms for them that it's not the message they want to hear."