Dan Sullivan Aims to Unite Alaska GOP vs. Begich

Dan Sullivan Aims to Unite Alaska GOP vs. Begich

By Scott Conroy - May 9, 2014

When then-Gov. Sarah Palin appointed Dan Sullivan to become Alaska's attorney general in 2009, he was known colloquially around the state as "the other Dan Sullivan."

At the time, the former White House official and assistant secretary of state was better known in Washington, D.C. -- particularly in post-9/11 international security circles -- than he was among Alaska politicos, who were far better acquainted with the recently elected mayor of Anchorage who shares the same name.

No longer the “other Dan Sullivan,” he is now the nominal frontrunner in a three-way Republican Senate primary fight. The winner will take on Democratic incumbent Mark Begich in November.

Sullivan’s opponents, however, have given the “other” label a twist, questioning the Alaska bona fides of a man who -- though inarguably accomplished -- has lived most of his life in the Lower 48.

A candidate’s “Alaskan-ness” may be a particularly salient matter in the 49th state, but national establishment Republicans have shrugged off that concern and embraced the Ohio native over Lt.  Gov. Mead Treadwell and Tea Party-backed 2010 Senate nominee Joe Miller as their best bet to defeat Begich.

“I’m in the race because Alaska needs a fighter and a doer in the U.S. Senate again,” Sullivan told RealClearPolitics in an interview, adding that his “biggest job” is being a father to his three daughters and a devoted husband. “I want my kids to have opportunities that we’ve all had.”

If that rhetoric sounds like boilerplate political speechifying, it is so by design. In what is expected to be a hotly contested GOP race over in advance of the Aug. 19 primary, Sullivan’s massive fundraising advantage has provided him with good reason to play it safe. As of March 31, he had raised $2.7 million and had $2 million cash on hand. By Alaska standards, those are big numbers at this point in the game, and blow out of the water the $143,000 and $295,000 that Treadwell and Miller have on hand, respectively.

The previously little-known Republican challenger even outraised the incumbent Begich in the first quarter of this year.

National Democrats have taken note of the strong position Sullivan is in. Put Alaska First -- a super PAC largely funded by Harry Reid’s Senate Majority PAC -- has come to Begich’s defense to the tune of over $1.6 million, with $346,000 allocated for a new round of anti-Sullivan ads last week.

Sullivan has used this outside group as the centerpiece to his effort to nationalize the race in a state where Democrats in Washington are extremely unpopular. 

“That is literally the most liberal Americans in the country, who want to shut down Alaska, want to take away our guns,” Sullivan, a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps Reserves, said of the Democratic-aligned super PAC. “I mean, that is a group that doesn’t represent Alaska’s interests at all.”

For his part, Sullivan has earned endorsements from his former boss, Condoleezza Rice, and the Chamber of Commerce, while Karl Rove’s American Crossroads has aired ads in support of him.

Meanwhile, the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity has led the charge over the airwaves in trying to weaken Begich before the general election, though the group has not singled out Sullivan explicitly as its preferred candidate.

Nonetheless, Begich has focused on turning the Kochs into a major issue, telling RealClearPolitics that there is “no question” the billionaire Republican donors are supporting Sullivan.

Begich’s first TV ad of the campaign attacked the conservative mega-donors for airing misleading claims against him and for shutting down an Alaska oil refinery

Unwilling to concede ground on the issue, Sullivan notes that Begich’s political action committee received $5,000 from KochPAC in 2010.

“Look, I haven’t received a dime from the Koch brothers,” he said. “Mark Begich is the candidate who’s gotten money from the Koch brothers. The irony of this is pretty rich.”

Sullivan has trained his sights on Begich, but both of his underfunded GOP opponents could trip him up in a state where Republican primaries can be unpredictable, low-turnout affairs.

As the sitting lieutenant governor with deep-seated Alaska ties, Treadwell is widely considered to have the best ground operation in the state, and there is little doubt that Miller’s base of support remains the most passionate of the three, despite his sky-high disapproval ratings overall.

Sullivan has been ahead in most public surveys, though a recent internal poll obtained by The Hill showed him trailing Begich, 44 percent-42 percent, in a hypothetical general election matchup. (The RCP Average has Sullivan ahead by a razor-thin 0.3 percentage points.)

But polling in Alaska primaries is notoriously unreliable, and the three major Republican candidates will be pushing hard to get a leg up on one another, no matter what the surveys say in the coming months.

Asked to name any policy areas where he disagrees with his party rivals, Sullivan declined to do so and instead suggested that the difference in the race was his record of accomplishment, particularly his tenure in Alaska as attorney general and later as commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources -- a high-level cabinet position in the state.

Sullivan said he is proudest of his work combatting Alaska’s sky-high domestic violence and sexual assault rates as attorney general, via the “Choose Respect” program that he launched in 2009 along with Gov. Sean Parnell.

The program helped to significantly boost the penalties for perpetrators of rape and abuse, increase services to victims and better spread awareness via public service announcements and marches in towns and rural communities, where the problem is particularly deep-seated.

“The first result has been to take the issue out of the shadows,” Sullivan said.

So far, all three Republican candidates have focused on their opposition to Begich, but as August approaches, the intra-party battles that have been raging elsewhere are likely to become more apparent in this race.

Perhaps the most critical potential development to watch for over the next couple of months is whether establishment Republicans will coalesce around Sullivan or remain split between him and Treadwell -- an unsettled dynamic that, if it continues, could leave room for Miller to make noise, even with a relatively small share of the vote.

In 2010, Palin endorsed Miller, helping to boost him to an unlikely GOP primary win over Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who one public poll showed was beating her Tea Party challenger by 32 points just a month before Primary Day.

Palin has thus far not weighed in on the 2014 race, and although her shadow over Alaska politics has faded considerably, she could still have a significant impact on the Republican primary.

Asked about the polarizing former governor who appointed him attorney general, Sullivan said that he continues to have “a lot of respect” for Palin.

But as to whether he would actively seek her endorsement, Sullivan was true to his guarded form.

“Look, I’m seeking everybody’s endorsement,” he said.


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

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