Sen. Mark Begich’s campaign for re-election is running out of gas as Republican candidate Dan Sullivan continues to solidify his lead in the polls.
Alaskan voters will put up with a lot, but in 2014, it increasingly appears that membership in President Barack Obama’s party is not one of them.
Sen. Begich tried early to distance himself from President Obama, as many political observers believed he was one of the strongest Democratic candidates running in a red state. After President Obama’s State of Union address in January, Begich said that he would not welcome him to the state with open arms. “I’ll drag him around. I’ll show him whatever he wants to see, but I want to convince him and show him that some of his policies are not the right direction,” he said, adding, “I don’t need him campaigning for me. I need him to change some of his policies.”
During a recent campaign stop in Juneau, Begich helpfully reminded supporters that President Obama would only be president for two years – whereas he would be elected for six. “This is about Alaska’s future. Not his, ours,” Begich explained to a group of about 30 supporters on a rainy day in Alaska.
But Begich’s efforts to distance himself from Obama only go so far, particularly since he clings to the President’s cabinet members. Earlier this month, Begich was embracing the Obama administration’s brand new Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro at an event in Anchorage.
“I have his cell number,” Begich announced to the crowd, hinting that he was the main reason $7 million in federal grants were brought to Alaska for housing projects.
Castro’s visit marked the fifth Obama cabinet member traveling to Alaska to bolster his campaign.
According to the National Journal, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez visited in July, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz came in mid-August, as well as Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker. The cabinet members frequently attend fundraisers for Begich, attended by Alaska’s wealthiest Democratic donors.
Republicans, however, are having a field day with his record, constantly reminding voters that Begich votes with Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Although October is traditionally the month for last-minute surprises, Begich has spent the entire month with a shotgun approach. He repeatedly questions Dan Sullivan’s residency, accusing him of not being “Alaskan enough” for voters, even though he moved to the state in 1997. After serving in the Bush administration as assistant secretary of state, Sullivan moved back to Alaska in 2009 to serve as the state’s attorney general.
Republicans point to Begich’s own father, who was born and raised in Minnesota before moving to Alaska in 1957 to teach before running for Congress 13 years later.
In September, Begich’s campaign tried to slow Sullivan’s momentum by running an ad accusing him of being indirectly responsible for a double murder and sexual assault.
The ad, likened to the infamous “Willie Horton” ad in 1992, backfired, and Begich pulled it, but only after a lawyer for the family of the victims denounced the ad and demanded that it be removed.
Suddenly, the warm, friendly Alaskan Democrat was seen as just another desperate politician. “Begich’s terrible smear has been nationally recognized by major news outlets as the worst attack in the entire 2014 midterm cycle,” Kohli said.
Alaska Republicans United
Begich was actually leading in the polls for most of 2014, while Alaskan Republicans were busy fighting through a late three-way primary. After Sullivan clinched the nomination in late August, it didn’t take long for Republicans to unite. Both PPP and Rasmussen polls showed that Sullivan gained an edge after the Republican primary was over.
Sullivan has also maintained his lead throughout October, after crossing the 50 percent threshold in a recent CNN poll.
“Conservatives across Alaska are united behind Dan Sullivan, and the data shows it,” Kohli said. “That would not be possible if not for rock solid support from the conservative base in Alaska.”
Sullivan has also earned the endorsements of political heavyweights in the Senate, such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL).
Alaska Polling Is Hard?
There are two factors frequently cited by the Begich campaign in Alaska to give Democrats hope. One is the oft-repeated “wild card” as campaigns remind reporters that Alaska’s “notoriously unreliable” polling is difficult to get right. But that polling X-factor does not help Begich, as any error historically tends to favor Democrats.
The Ground Game
Democrats are also hailing Begich’s vaunted “ground game,” as he crisscrosses the state’s more rural areas looking for voters. As many as 90 national Democratic staffers are mobilizing to register new voters, while Republicans only have 14 field staffers.
But while Begich is struggling to build a new coalition, Republicans just want to get their existing voters back to the polls.
When Begich won in 2008, he only did so by about 4,000 votes over Sen. Ted Stevens, the longest-serving Republican in Senate history.
Stevens was running as a convicted felon, after being found guilty a month before the election for failing to disclose political gifts. It was a bitter pill for Republican voters to swallow, as many simply could not pull the lever for Stevens again.
In the presidential race, McCain won the state with 192,631 votes. Stevens, however, only earned 147,004 votes.
With a newly branded candidate in Sullivan, Alaskan Republicans are confident that they can bring Republican voters back out to the polls. “The RNC has made its earliest and largest investment ever in Alaska this cycle, and the race is a top priority for the GOP,” Kohli explained, pointing out that the national party has had staffers in the state for over a year in preparation for the election.
Alaskan Republicans point out that, unlike many states, many of the urban areas actually favor the GOP.
In spite of Begich’s ground efforts, Democratic voters in Alaska are actually declining. There are actually 6,260 fewer registered Democrats in Alaska, since October 2008, according to an analysis by Alaskan political blogger Amanda Coyne. The numbers show that there are 9,327 more registered Republicans and 13,411 new independents.
Although some of the new independents will likely vote for Begich, the dearth of Alaskans willing to identify themselves as Democrats give Alaskan Republicans additional confidence as they head into the election.