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Alaska's Begich Battles Midterm Partisan Undertow

Alaska's Begich Battles Midterm Partisan Undertow

By Nicholas Riccardi - October 6, 2014

KODIAK, Alaska (AP) -- For the past four months, Steven West has been about as far from the midterm elections as someone can get: aboard a fishing boat in the Bering Sea.

When he docked last week on Kodiak Island, he didn't have to go far to run smack into Alaska's Senate campaign.

West found the incumbent, Democrat Mark Begich, greeting supporters at the Kodiak Island Brewing Co. The 54-year-old West buttonholed Begich and asked about the fishing quotas West blames for damaging the island's primary industry and the state's largest employer. Begich told him that he heads a Senate subcommittee with jurisdiction over the nation's fisheries, and he promised that the next round of quotas would be more fairly distributed.

"I appreciate that you've got our backs," said a satisfied West.

A month before the Nov. 4 election, here is a crucial question in a state that's voted with the GOP in every presidential election since 1968: Is the perception that Begich has the backs of Alaskans on issues swing voters elsewhere rarely think about, such as genetically modified salmon and health care access in rural communities, enough to defy the partisan undertow of a difficult election year for Democrats?

"It's a very red state," said David Shurtleff, a nonpartisan strategist in Anchorage, noting that less than one-fifth of the state's 498,000 voters are registered Democrats. "You're down 15 runs in the first inning, and you have to pitch a perfect game."

Republicans are counting on a victory over Begich to be among the six seats the GOP needs to net to take control of the Senate. They also acknowledge that if anyone can take advantage of the sometimes surreal nature of Alaska's politics - small-town, person-to-person campaigning in a state as big as Texas and California combined - it is Begich.

His Republican challenger, former state Attorney General Dan Sullivan, rarely misses an opportunity to mention Begich's name in the same sentence as President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Meanwhile Begich, the gregarious former mayor of Anchorage and son of a beloved congressman who died in a plane crash in 1972, tries to turn every discussion toward Alaska's unique culture and issues.

"Alaskans like him when you're talking about local issues, but that's only if you forget the $17 trillion deficit, if you forget about immigration and amnesty, if you forget foreign policy issues," said Republican state Rep. Bill Stoltze, who was a guest at Begich's wedding but is backing Sullivan.

Begich's much-praised television ads have played up his personality and his Alaska bona fides. One spot featured him snowmobiling above the Arctic Circle. A more recent one involves his mother and wife arguing about whether he's "cheap" or thrifty."

Begich's efforts to focus on Alaskan issues haven't been flawless, however. The one major stumble of his campaign involved a spot attacking Sullivan for not seeking a stiffer sentence against a man later accused of a double murder and sexual assault. The state's senior senator, Republican Lisa Murkowski, who endorsed Sullivan, has also demanded Begich take down ads in which he touts how he works closely with her.

At the fisheries debate this past week on Kodiak Island, famed for its huge brown bears and large fishing port, Begich's campaign had a table bedecked with lawn signs and buttons. One had a slash mark through the word "Frankenfish" in protest of genetically modified salmon.

Sullivan initially passed taking part in the fisheries debate, only to reschedule after a columnist noted that no candidate had ever skipped it and won a race for Senate in the state. Still, Sullivan didn't have a table.

The candidates sat on an auditorium stage next to a poster for the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers. Begich, who wore a salmon pin on his lapel, won cheers for praising the electronic monitoring of fisheries. Sullivan drew groans from the crowd after admitting his brother owns a business that buys some farm-raised fish, though the business also buys Alaskan seafood. Sullivan hit back, repeatedly linking Begich to Reid and Obama.

Earlier in the day, as Begich won over West with talk of the state's fisheries at the brewery, other patrons studiously avoided making eye contact with Begich. For them, Sullivan's reminders about Begich's Democratic ties are persuasive.

"I don't appreciate a senator who doesn't vote the way the state wants," said Cliff Zawacki, 50, a retired Coast Guard officer who voted for Begich in 2008. "He voted for health care, which the majority of the state didn't want. But he didn't care." 

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. 

Nicholas Riccardi

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