In their first time facing off, Republican Senate candidates Mead Treadwell and Dan Sullivan took jabs at Democratic Sen. Mark Begich and began to stake out key positions in what so far has been a quiet campaign season, while a third key contender for the GOP nomination -- Joe Miller -- never showed up.
Miller was invited to the primary candidate forum three weeks ago with an email to the campaign and later, a phone call to the campaign treasurer, said Andrew Halcro, president of the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce.
But there was no word from Miller's campaign for two weeks. Finally, with days before the forum, Miller's campaign manager, Randy DeSoto, said Miller would not attend in part because of the late notice, according to Halcro.
There was no late notice, said Halcro. "The problem was he was unavailable," Halcro said.
DeSoto did not return an email from the Alaska Dispatch seeking comment.
The delayed reply seems to be par for the course in a primary campaign that has drawn national attention but has left many voters wondering where the candidates stand.
Sullivan, the state's former attorney general and Natural Resources commissioner, refused to talk to reporters about issues after he announced his candidacy three months ago. Even today, Sullivan's website has no section spelling out his positions.
That will come soon, said Sullivan's campaign spokesman. "We're rebranding our website and we'll have an issues section up there real soon," said Mike Anderson.
Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell has listed only five positions on his site, with common right-wing planks like being pro-life, pro-guns and for traditional marriage topping the list.
The Alaska Democratic Party has blasted the aloofness, issuing press releases laying out a laundry list of federal issues it says the candidates haven't addressed. The "Treadwell/Sullivan issue tracker" wonders where the hopefuls stand on nearly 20 issues, everything from privatizing Social Security to permanent reauthorization of the Indian Health Service.
Time enough for counting
Voters on the sidewalks and cafes outside the forum Monday have noticed the silence. "I pick up the paper and read the headlines, and I see it's pretty quiet," said Maicee Her, a barista at the restaurant in the Atwood Building that houses state offices in Anchorage, who said she sometimes sees Lt. Gov. Treadwell and used to see Sullivan, before he left his job as commissioner of the state Department of Natural Resources to run for office.
"I wish the candidates would talk more about where they stand," said Irene Herd, a phone surveyor who conducts political polling for various companies. People she talks to often don't know the candidate's positions, she said.
But there's still seven months until the Aug. 19 primary vote, plenty of time to explore issues. In the forum, both Republican candidates said they're pro-life, and both attacked Begich, Obamacare and federal overreach, saying they'd fight for less regulation and more economic freedom in hopes of promoting more business and development opportunities in Alaska without forsaking the environment.
Treadwell claimed that Begich had invited the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to Alaska to conduct the controversial review of the Pebble copper, gold and molybdenum prospect. The review determined that such a mine could have a devastating effect on the Bristol Bay salmon fishery. That EPA action set a terrible precedent, was an invasion of state's rights, and has sent ripples of fear through the mining industry, Treadwell said.
"It's wrong, we have to fight it, and we have to be outraged. I am," said Treadwell.
Begich recently came out publicly opposing Pebble. But Begich did not request the EPA review, said Max Croes, his campaign spokesman. Instead, that request came from tribes and other groups.
Asked why Treadwell said Begich had requested the review, Treadwell spokesman Fred Brown provided no evidence that Begich had made the request. But Brown said it's no secret that Begich is close to the EPA and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
As for Sullivan, he blasted Begich for not stopping the EPA's review. Sullivan said that as Natural Resources commissioner, he'd asked the EPA where they get the authority to prejudge a project that doesn't even exist. "Whether you're for Pebble or against it, no Alaskan should be for an EPA that believes it can preemptively look at any project in the state, on state land, and tell us whether or not we can move forward on it," he said.
"We should have a senator who's telling the EPA we can't do that, and we don't," Sullivan said.
Other developments at issue
Both candidates also took Begich to task for Jewell's recent decision to reject a land swap with the state that would have allowed a one-lane gravel road to be built through a federal refuge, connecting the isolated village of King Cove with an all-weather airport at Cold Bay.
Following Jewell's decision, Begich has introduced legislation to override her rejection, and called the decision to put wildlife ahead of public safety irresponsible, Croes said.
Begich isn't working to keep the federal government from stopping Alaska development, including at the giant National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, where development opportunities have been halved by new policies there, said Treadwell. Greenland and regional governments in Canada have regained full control of their national land, and Alaska needs similar freedoms, he said.
"We have a senator now who is paddling in the wrong direction and just not being effective in protecting our rights," said Treadwell.
Treadwell also got in a slight dig against Sullivan, an Ohio Native whose residency has been controversial because he lived in Alaska for five years starting in 1997 before moving away to become a White House fellow, serve an active-duty stint in the U.S. Marines, and eventually, work in Washington, D.C., as an assistant secretary of state under Condoleeza Rice. Sullivan returned in 2009 to serve as attorney general under former Gov. Sarah Palin.
"Dan, this is before you were here," Treadwell said as he described his efforts to bring a missile defense base to Alaska.
After the forum, spokesman Fred Brown also dug into Sullivan, tweeting that "The chamber just saw the definition of record vs. rhetoric #AKSen."
Meanwhile, Sullivan kept it positive on Twitter, thanking the chamber for the forum. "Great job as always," he said.
Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com