Alaska News

Latest squabble between U.S. Senate campaigns hinges on media access to Sullivan

Few people on the U.S. Senate campaign trail in Alaska would dispute that the incumbent Democrat in the race, Mark Begich, will talk to just about anyone -- even to conservative talk radio hosts, whose shows Begich is known to call on a whim.

As for Begich's opponent, Republican nominee Dan Sullivan? That depends on who you ask.

Sullivan's campaign cites the eight debates in which he's scheduled to appear before Election Day. And it argues Sullivan has been open and transparent with the press from "day one" -- though he refused to take questions from media at his campaign kickoff a year ago.

"Dan has been very accessible to the media throughout the entire campaign," his campaign manager, Ben Sparks, said in an interview.

Democrats, meanwhile, argue that Sullivan, a first-time candidate who previously served as Alaska's attorney general and natural resources commissioner, dodges questions from Alaska media, and from the public.

They cite as evidence a primary night episode in which Sullivan's campaign barred reporters from his victory party, and another after a debate in Kodiak on Wednesday, when Sullivan's spokesman quickly ushered him away from reporters after a few minutes of questioning.

Begich brought up the issue himself in a phone interview Saturday morning on a separate topic. A request by Alaska Dispatch News to interview Sullivan on the same topic has gone unanswered so far.

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"It's frustrating because, I mean, Alaskans are not getting a good conversation about the issues, as well as where we differ, other than these 30-second ads and through his spokesman," Begich said. "I'm starting to hear from people that there's a contrast occurring here."

Objective tallies of the two campaigns' public events are inconclusive.

Since the Aug. 19 primary, Begich's campaign has advertised 11 public events to media in the Anchorage and Mat-Su area on six separate days -- and a spokesman, Max Croes, provided a list of 21 additional media events and constituent meetings around the state.

Sullivan, meanwhile, has advertised four public events on two separate days in the Anchorage and Mat-Su area -- though his first one as the official Republican nominee didn't come until Sept. 24. He appeared at more than three dozen additional constituent meetings, according to a list provided by the campaign, and a spokesman said Sullivan has met with or invited media to events in seven communities outside Anchorage.

As for debates and forums, Sullivan had his first head-to-head meeting with Begich less than 10 days after the primary, and his campaign says he's committed to seven more over the course of the campaign. There was also pair of forums on Sullivan's schedule to which Begich wouldn't commit, Sullivan's campaign said.

Begich's campaign, meanwhile, points out that the first debate was hosted by a right-leaning coalition of groups that included the Anchorage Tea Party.

Begich had been willing to appear at several more events beyond those already scheduled -- events that Sullivan wouldn't attend. And Democrats have attacked Sullivan for originally planning to miss Wednesday's debate in Kodiak before he agreed to appear.

An informal review by Alaska Dispatch News suggests the eight debates and forums agreed to by both sides appear to be at the upper end when compared to the competitive U.S. Senate races around the country.

Matt Mackowiak, a national Republican communications consultant who's not working on the Alaska race, said he thought Sullivan has been running an "active" campaign but he also noted that media appearances come with some risk -- risk that the Sullivan campaign might not want to take if it's ahead. A series of recent polls have shown Sullivan with an edge over Begich.

"That's just sort of a rule of politics. If you're ahead, you minimize risk," Mackowiak said in a phone interview. "There's very little potential downside to going and meeting with voters. There's always potential downside with doing media."

Mackowiak added that many of the Republican candidates in tight races "do not believe the media is their friend."

"You think these guys are trying to play gotcha, they're trying to make this more competitive -- maybe deep down in the recesses of their mind, they might prefer a Democrat," Mackowiak said.

Asked about Mackowiak's comments, Sparks, Sullivan's campaign manager, said,: "Dan and our campaign have been completely open and transparent with the press from day one, and that's something we'll continue to do."

While Sparks won't concede that media has lacked access to Sullivan, he did add that since Sullivan's general election campaign is compressed into a 2 1/2-month period, unlike Begich's, it has required frequent meetings and interviews with organizations and trade groups.

"Dan is getting out there and talking to Alaskans -- these are simply not advised to the press," Sparks said.

Another contrast between the two candidates may stem from the difference between their two campaign spokesmen. Croes, who works for Begich and has experience working with media on several high-profile campaigns, is a relentlessly energetic pitchman who's quick to speak for attribution.

Queries to Sullivan's campaign are fielded by Mike Anderson, a former press secretary for U.S. Rep. Don Young, who's less experienced and more deliberate with his responses, often asking for questions to be submitted by email -- though Sparks is more likely to speak to the media than Begich's campaign manager.

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Anderson was the staffer who escorted Sullivan away from reporters after Wednesday's debate. Asked about Democrats' characterization that Sullivan had been "pulled" away, Anderson said, "It was my understanding that each outlet got to ask a question, and at that point, I thanked everyone and we were headed off for some dinner at the American Legion post."

When it comes to Sullivan's primary night speech at a downtown restaurant, which reporters were forced to watch through windows from the sidewalk outside, Sparks explained that Sullivan was holding off talking to the media until his Republican opponents had both conceded -- which didn't happen until early the following morning.

Sparks said the idea that Sullivan is media-shy is a "false narrative" created by the Begich campaign, adding that the characterization is "simply not the case."

Begich, Sparks argued, was "nowhere to be found" during a controversy over a television ad run by Begich's campaign that invoked a double homicide, an ad that was pulled from the airwaves at the request of the victims' family. (Croes responded by sending an Associated Press story about the controversy that includes a quote about the commercial.)

Republicans have also criticized Begich's unwillingness to take a position on the controversial oil tax referendum that was on the primary election ballot in August, while in turn, Democrats have noted that Sullivan was slow to come out in favor of the Violence Against Women Act -- and switched from opposing an initiative to raise the minimum wage before the primary election to supporting it afterwards.

Even Sullivan's position on peanut butter is unclear, Croes added.

"A radio station asked him if he liked his peanut butter chunky or smooth, and he declined to answer," Croes said. "That actually happened."

Questioned further, Croes provided a talk show transcript showing that Sullivan actually professed a clear preference for "crunchy" peanut butter -- though he appeared to confuse the hosts when he attempted to explain that his choice of a "crunchy" condiment was not a reflection of his broader lifestyle choices.

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"He's a flip-flopper," one of the hosts said.

"I'm not a flip-flopper," Sullivan responded. "I didn't mean (I'm a) crunchy granola kind of guy, right?"

Nathaniel Herz

Nathaniel Herz is an Anchorage-based journalist. He’s 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 natherz.substack.com

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