Alaska's two leading U.S. Senate candidates on Thursday night met for the last time before Election Day in a policy focused debate on the state's public broadcasting network.
Incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Begich and his Republican challenger, Dan Sullivan, fielded questions on energy development and the Arctic, and foreign policy and economic issues – and also took aim at each other over attack ads and government snooping.
With less than a week until Tuesday's election, and millions of dollars spent by each side on TV ads, Thursday's debate was the final chance for many voters to see the candidates unscripted, engaging each other on a wide swath of issues. It followed another televised contest Wednesday at an East Anchorage high school, and a series of forums around the state.
The moderators – Alaska Public Radio Network journalists Lori Townsend, Dan Bross and Liz Ruskin – fired an array of specific questions, some with pointed followups, at Begich and Sullivan, while campaign staff from both sides watched the debate unfold on a television in an adjacent conference room.
Many of the questions were on topics the candidates had already clashed on during the campaign, from foreign policy and intervention in the Middle East to campaign finance reform, to reporting of sexual assaults in the U.S. military. And the pattern of answers was also similar, with Begich often wielding his specific positions on issues, with Sullivan delivering general responses and pivoting to attacks tying his opponent to national themes and figures.
In response to a question about oil development inside the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, for example, Begich said the state is "moving forward," following an announcement Wednesday from the U.S. Department of Interior about a new environmental impact assessment for a ConocoPhillips project. And he touted the thousands of barrels of oil he's expecting to come from new projects in the NPR-A over the next few years.
Sullivan, by contrast, said that oil and gas development in that area should have come sooner, and that it had been slowed by the administration of President Barack Obama — which, he added, "overreaches and ignores the rule of law."
The candidates were each allotted two questions to ask the other. Begich tried to pin down Sullivan on a pair of policy issues.
One was whether Sullivan would vote to reauthorize the Patriot Act, an anti-terrorism bill that's been criticized for infringing on civil liberties; Begich's second question was whether Sullivan backed a federal funding mechanism called "advance appropriations." Begich used that second query to tweak his opponent for his support from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who is coming to Alaska this weekend to stump for Sullivan, and whom Begich characterized as the "king of government shutdowns."
Sullivan, meanwhile, asked Begich why he'd voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, and if he'd regretted running television ads in his 2008 U.S. Senate campaign attacking the longtime incumbent Republican, Ted Stevens. Begich denied running the attack ads, but Sullivan's campaign quickly produced a link to a Begich commercial that did, in fact, quote Alaskans criticizing Stevens.
Two other U.S. Senate hopefuls were not present at the debate: Libertarian Mark Fish and unaffiliated candidate Ted Gianoutsos, who is running on a campaign platform of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas development.
The public broadcasting network's rules for participation require candidates to average greater than 5 percent in public polls.