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5 Things to Watch for in Alaska's GOP Senate Primary

5 Things to Watch for in Alaska's GOP Senate Primary

By Scott Conroy - August 19, 2014

On Tuesday, Alaska Republicans will head to the polls to select a U.S. Senate nominee to run against Mark Begich, the Democratic incumbent.  

Begich won his seat in 2008 under unusual circumstances. His Republican opponent that year, the legendary Sen. Ted Stevens, was found guilty of federal corruption charges eight days before the general election -- a conviction that was voided a year before his death in a 2010 plane crash.  

But even though he was running against a convicted felon in a strong year for Democrats, Begich won the race by fewer than 4,000 votes -- demonstrating the extent of Republicans’ built-in advantage in the 49th state. 

Begich is a top target of the national GOP this year but has proven himself a strong competitor by emphasizing what he has done for Alaska residents and distancing himself from national Democrats.   

Here are five questions that loom over Tuesday’s Republican Primary as former Alaska Attorney General and Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and Fairbanks attorney Joe Miller vie for the nomination. 

1. Will Money and Organization Trump Alaska Ties? 

With past stints in the George W. Bush White House and in the State Department under Condoleezza Rice, Sullivan has by far the deepest ties to the national GOP establishment of the three candidates.  

Karl Rove’s American Crossroads and Club for Growth have provided additional resources to Sullivan—whose campaign already had a big financial advantage—which allowed him to flood the inexpensive Alaska airwaves with advertisements. 

Sullivan also has at his disposal an experienced team of national Republican operatives organizing on his behalf and a purportedly top-notch get-out-the-vote operation in place for Tuesday.  

But the Ohio-born Sullivan has also faced sustained challenges from both of his opponents over the depth of his ties to Alaska -- a criticism that could prove salient in a state where the rest of the world is referred to collectively as “Outside.”

Treadwell, in particular, has a more extensive background in Alaska Republican politics, having cut his teeth as an aide to Wally Hickel during his unsuccessful 1978 gubernatorial campaign and serving in Hickel’s administration after he ascended to the governor’s office in Juneau in 1990.  

Alaska political observers agree that Treadwell had a significant head start over Sullivan in on-the-ground organizing. The question now is whether Sullivan’s big cash advantage was enough to neutralize that edge. 

2. How Reliable Is the Polling?

Republicans in Washington have been buoyed by polls showing Sullivan with a consistent lead over Treadwell and Miller.  

But attempting to poll accurately a Republican primary in this state can be about as difficult as acquiring a suntan there in November.  

Case in point: the 2010 Republican primary, when a late-July survey conducted by a respected Alaska pollster showed Lisa Murkowski beating Joe Miller by 32 points. A month later, Miller stunned the political world by defeating the incumbent, who nonetheless went on to win the general election as a write-in candidate. 

Though the polls this time around have pointed to a two-man race between Sullivan and Treadwell (Miller’s unfavorability ratings have soared over the last four years), Begich is among the state’s political observers who aren’t counting out Miller. 

“People everywhere in this town write him off -- I don’t,” Begich said of Miller in an interview with RealClearPolitics last spring. “Everyone’s a player right now in that race. The pundits will always say the guy with the cash is the winner. Alaska politics is always about knowing and meeting and greeting the voters.” 

3.Will Miller’s Late Endorsements Matter?

In the 2010 race, Sarah Palin’s backing of Joe Miller was widely credited with pushing him past Murkowski in the primary.  

Asked in a May interview whether he was seeking the former governor’s support, Dan Sullivan told RCP that he had “a lot of respect” for Palin and that “I’m seeking everybody’s endorsement.” 

But instead, the 2008 vice presidential nominee announced Friday on her Facebook page that she is again backing Miller.  

Palin’s influence in Alaska has waned significantly since 2010, but as the state’s most famous resident and a continuing presence in national Republican politics, her late backing of Miller this time around figures to be a factor -- though the question is how much of one.  

Miller, who has struggled mightily with fundraising, could have used that endorsement much earlier in the game. Nonetheless, the late nod might help him to reactivate some of the Tea Party supporters who propelled him to victory in the 2010 primary. 

An equally intriguing endorsement for Miller came Monday morning in the form of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.  

"I am proud to endorse Joe Miller for United States Senate in Alaska, because Joe embodies the kind of values our country so desperately needs. He is unequivocally pro-life, pro-family, and pro-traditional marriage. And above all, he understands that life and liberty come from God," Huckabee said in a statement released by Miller’s campaign.  

Huckabee, who also endorsed Miller in 2010, is said to be mulling a 2016 presidential run. His last-minute backing of Miller appears to confirm Huckabee’s belief that the Fairbanks attorney still has clout among the Tea Party set.  

4. Will Voters Back Higher Oil Taxes Ushered In by Palin’s Administration?

Choosing the Republican standard-bearer to put up against Begich won’t be the only big decision that Alaska voters make on Tuesday. 

Also on the ballot is a referendum measure that, if passed, would repeal the current system by which the state’s powerful oil industry is taxed. It would also reinstall the higher tax regime that was a signature achievement of the Palin administration in 2007 and that was in effect until the state legislature passed a new structure of incentives and tax breaks last year.  

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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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