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Begich Aims to Localize Tough 2014 Senate Battle

Begich Aims to Localize Tough 2014 Senate Battle

By Scott Conroy - November 19, 2013

To stand a chance of netting the six seats needed to win control of the Senate next year, both sides agree that Republicans almost certainly must take down Alaska incumbent Mark Begich.

As one of four Democratic senators up for re-election in Republican-leaning states, Begich has vulnerabilities that have become even more pronounced amid the disastrous rollout of the Accordable Care Act, for which he voted nearly four years ago.

After defeating scandal-tarnished Sen. Ted Stevens in 2008 by less than 4,000 votes, Begich now faces a much tougher environment in 2014.

With Republicans already working tirelessly to nationalize the election, the incumbent is just as eagerly seeking to make the contest a referendum on the unique dynamics in his home state -- a strategy being replicated by Democratic senators facing difficult fights in Arkansas, Louisiana, and North Carolina.

With a wide open, three-way Republican primary shaping up for the right to take on Begich, one of his best hopes for political survival is that his opponent enters the general election severely wounded by a long and costly intra-party battle.

That primary features two top-tier candidates with significant support from elements of the GOP’s establishment wing -- Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and former Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan -- as well as the likely entry of familiar Tea Party-backed contender Joe Miller. The latter, who lost to Lisa Murkowski in a contentious 2010 Senate race, has launched an exploratory committee for a candidacy that figures to be a volatile wild card in the contest.

A Yale University and Harvard Business School graduate, Treadwell has been a fixture of the tight-knit Alaska political community for decades and rode his business-friendly credentials to a win in the multi-candidate 2010 GOP primary for lieutenant governor.

Sullivan, by contrast, served as a U.S. Marine in Alaska during the 1990s before moving to Washington, D.C., in 2002 to take a job in the Bush administration. He then returned to the 49th state in 2009 after being appointed attorney general by then Gov. Sarah Palin.

Lacking discernible differences with Sullivan on major policy matters, Treadwell has thus far questioned his opponent’s Alaska bona fides in a state where longevity of residency is often considered an important feather in a candidate’s cap.

National Republican spin doctors, meanwhile, have been eager to dismiss Miller, who delivered a shocking upset to incumbent Murkowski in the 2010 primary before losing to her general election write-in bid later that year.

And they have some evidence to back up their belief: Opinion polls have shown Miller to be widely unpopular among voters, and he raised a miniscule $13,000 in the last fundraising quarter.

But the Gulf War combat veteran, who shares Treadwell’s Ivy League pedigree, retains a following among Alaska’s vibrant (and often difficult to track accurately) libertarian wing.

Strategists from the Treadwell and Sullivan camps agree that Miller’s impact on the primary is unpredictable, but both of the already declared candidates are taking him seriously.

“We have to focus on Dan Sullivan and Joe Miller -- we can’t take our eye off either one of them,” said Treadwell spokesperson Rick Gorka, a veteran of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. “Democrats are happy to look at a primary where Joe Miller could be the Republican nominee, and that’s their best hope. Dan Sullivan would also be a nice target for Begich, as a first-time candidate.”

Sullivan campaign manager Ben Moore took pains to note that his entire senior staff is composed of Alaska residents. But despite sniping between the two main camps, Moore vowed that the primary would be cordial, even as he warned the GOP in the Lower 48 of just how difficult it would be to defeat Begich next November.

“Mark Begich is a tireless campaigner,” Moore asserted. “He’s shrewd, he’s smart, he’s been running ads up here for years already. … This guy’s tough, and so we can’t take it for granted it all.”

Primary Day in Alaska is not until next August, meaning the eventual GOP nominee will have just over two months to regroup for a general election that will likely pose a financial disadvantage, though an infusion of outside money from partisans on both sides is certain to play a major role.

As of the end of last month, Begich had over $2.4 million on hand to Treadwell’s $155,000. Sullivan entered the race in mid-October and is regarded as a capable fundraiser, but he is also playing catch-up to the well-funded incumbent.

Public polling thus far has been sparse in a state where it is notoriously difficult to collect accurate data, but a Public Policy Polling (D) survey conducted in July showed Begich with single-digit leads over Treadwell (44 percent to 40 percent) and Sullivan (46 percent to 39 percent) and a comfortable cushion over Miller (55 percent to 32 percent).

National and statewide Republicans have sought to remind Alaska voters of Begich’s support for the Affordable Care Act, and Gov. Sean Parnell recently wrote an open letter to the state’s junior senator urging him to either support repeal efforts or “substantially change” the law.

After announcing earlier this month that he had personally enrolled in a health insurance plan via the federal marketplace, Begich has ramped up his own criticism of the Obama administration’s health care rollout.

But in a twist to the political calculus on the issue, Parnell announced Friday that he is declining to expand Medicare for more than 40,000 eligible Alaskans (more than 5 percent of the state’s population). That move has already triggered significant backlash among many interest groups, particularly in the state’s most remote areas, which are largely inhabited by low-income Alaska natives, who tend to lean Democratic.

Still, the issue appears likely to remain a thorn in Begich’s side in a state where the law remains unpopular.

And that’s exactly why Begich will promote at nearly every turn his deep Alaska roots, attempting to keep the race’s focus centered on the local level rather than Washington, D.C.

“Alaskans tend to vote for the individual, not simply based on a party label, and that’s been true for elected officials from Wally Hickel [who was elected governor in 1990 as a member of the Alaska Independence Party] to Lisa Murkowski,” said Zack Fields of the Alaska Democratic Party.

For Begich and the other Democrats running in red states, the critical question remains whether their own name, or that of their political party, will end up being more important to voters next November. 

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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