The Virginia consulting firm that worked on U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan's successful campaign last year is opening an office in Alaska and completing an agreement to be the lead strategist for Sen. Lisa Murkowski's re-election bid.
Scott Kendall, an Anchorage attorney who has done election work for both Republican senators, said he will work on political campaigns and corporate communications for Black Rock Group, a Virginia consulting firm. A partner in that firm, Mike Dubke, has worked in Alaska politics for more than a decade.
The firm will be the overall strategist for Murkowski's re-election effort, with Kendall acting as campaign manager as the race intensifies, said Kevin Sweeney, a member of Murkowski's official staff who also served as a campaign manager for the senator in 2010.
The 2016 election is nearly two years away, but Murkowski and Democrats are already positioning themselves for what's expected to be a contentious and competitive campaign. Last month, the Alaska Democratic Party issued several statements attacking Murkowski, with one highlighting recent hesitancy from Sullivan to say whether he would support her re-election bid.
Black Rock Group's new Alaska office will do state and federal political work and corporate communications, Kendall said in a phone interview.
The firm works primarily with Republican candidates and groups, and it was the lead strategist for Sullivan's campaign last year.
But Kendall also said the firm doesn't limit its campaign work to one party, and he pointed out that he was involved in the campaign of Gov. Bill Walker, a longtime Republican who dropped his party registration and received support from the Alaska Democratic Party before being elected last year.
Dubke, one of Black Rock Group's executives, has done work in Alaska dating back at least to 2002. That year, an independent group he led, Americans for Job Security, ran statewide television ads attacking Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles.
Dubke has also worked on political efforts opposing the proposed Pebble mining project in Southwest Alaska, as has Kendall. In the past, Kendall said, Black Rock Group has worked in Alaska on a "project by project" basis.
"I think now they're sort of planting their flag," he said. "And we're going to be up here in a bigger way."
At a national level, Black Rock Group also works with American Crossroads, an independent super PAC co-founded by the political strategist Karl Rove.
American Crossroads has supported Republicans across the country, including Sullivan, though it's barred by federal law from coordinating its work with candidates.
Last year, Black Rock Group's parallel relationship with Sullivan and American Crossroads drew criticism from election reform advocates, though Dubke said his firm avoided improper coordination by maintaining a firewall between its employees working with candidates and those who work with independent groups.
"These groups are good at appealing to the Tea Party electorate that rebelled against Murkowski in 2010," said Mike Wenstrup, chair of the Alaska Democratic Party, said in a prepared statement. "She's hoping her D.C. allies come bail her out in 2016."
Just four months after Sullivan's campaign ended, Murkowski's campaign is now entering a more serious phase with its impending relationship with Black Rock Group.
"We're getting active now," said Sweeney, who's the state director for Murkowski's Senate office. "That's what this move signals."
"We're taking the campaign seriously and we're already aggressively fundraising," he added.
Murkowski's political committee reported $900,000 in its account in its last filing with the Federal Election Commission, which runs through the end of last year.
By comparison, Sullivan reported spending a total of nearly $8 million on his entire campaign.
It's unclear who Murkowski's opponents will be, and Sweeney declined to speculate. No other high-profile candidates have announced intentions to run, though Democrat Mark Begich, who lost his re-election campaign to Sullivan, has not ruled out a bid.