Mark Begich has promised Alaska voters that he will be a thorn in President Barack Obama’s side. He has feuded publicly with, even talked down to, a top Democratic senator. He has run television ads emphasizing his relationship with Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
But despite all those things, Sen. Mark Begich is still a Democrat. So his might be the most unconventional campaign of the 2014 cycle, putting an Alaska-size distance between himself and Washington, D.C. And the party appears content to let him. Begich’s race is one of a handful that will determine who holds the Senate next year. With the odds-makers giving Republicans the edge for now, it could be the Democrat on the last frontier who upends their well-laid plans and saves Obama from facing an antagonistic Congress for the last two years of his presidency.
This is the message he’s taking to voters to make it happen, though.
“I’ll be a thorn in his ass,” Begich told the Washington Post last month. “There’s times when I’m a total thorn, you know, and he doesn’t appreciate it.”
It might sound a little bewildering to those in the lower 48, but it also might be exactly what Alaska voters want to hear.
In conversations with Begich’s campaign staff and outside political observers, the message seemed clear: Alaska, perhaps more than any other state, is driven by Alaska issues and personalities, a result of its history and geography. And Begich has a long history with the state: His father was a congressman and Begich formerly served as Anchorage mayor. He is spending his recess criss-crossing the state, even if it takes three planes to haul campaign stickers and window signs from one town that might be home to only 500 voters to the next.
That is his biggest asset, his campaign says. His staff exhaustively lists every government project won (like rural broadband Internet access) and his travels across the state. They talk about his “parking-lot town halls” that pop up spontaneously. A few weeks ago in Kodiak, he was leaving King’s Diner when a group of eight men struck up a conversation that turned into an extended Q&A session, according to Begich’s campaign manager Susanne Fleek, who also worked on his 2008 campaign. The same thing happened in Anchorage in recent days, she said, and that’s the accessibility that Alaskans expect.
“I think it also goes back to the fact that this is a huge state geographically, and a small state population wise. We all know each other,” Fleek, an Alaska native herself, told TPM by phone. “It’s never been a highly partisan state. We’re all in this together. We’ve all got to pull in the same direction.”
Carl Shepro, who is a long-time political scientist at the University of Alaska-Anchorage, compared Begich’s tactics with that of former Sen. Ted Stevens, the Republican who Begich defeated to win the seat in 2008. Stevens had a well-groomed reputation in the state for focusing on issues like conservation, energy and native tribes. It all sounds a lot like the political playbook that Begich is now employing, he said.
“He has to act very much like Stevens did,” Shepro said. “Stevens brought a lot of money into the state for issues that were definitely Alaska issues. (Begich) is attempting to emulate that.”
A favorite talking point for Fleek, Begich communications director Max Croes and others supporting his candidacy is that more than 50 percent of the state’s voters are registered as non-partisan. Winning over those voters will be key to Begich keeping his seat in the same state that elected Sarah Palin.
Begich and GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski pose for photos in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 25, 2012. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh).
That’s why his campaign has an almost unshakeable focus on Alaska-centric issues. A tribal health meeting, the Air Force’s decision to house next-generation airplanes at Eielson Air Force Base and a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry about the Canadian dam failure that put Alaska fisheries at risk are just a few of the news releases to come out of his Senate office in the last month.
“Mark and I grew up in a state where the most popular saying is, ‘We don’t give a damn how they do it outside Alaska,” Jim Lottsfeldt, executive director of the Put Alaska First PAC, which has run TV ads supportive of Begich, told TPM recently. “That’s the Alaskan political soul.”
And the need to convey that image — and keep Democrats in control of the Senate — is probably why Begich can get away with what otherwise might be a serious political faux pas for anybody else. Last month, Begich chided McCaskill saying that despite his “repeated attempts to reason with her,” she continued to go after a federal program that benefitted Alaska’s native-owned corporations.
If it wasn’t clear that the hardly shy McCaskill was okay with letting her colleague make such abrasive public statements, here is how she responded to TPM: “I’ve fought for six years to change the law in regard to” the federal program, she said. “There has consistently been one problem — Mark Begich. He single-handedly protects Alaska.”
Sounds more like an endorsement than a rebuke.
More recently, Begich has run afoul of Murkowsi, the state’s other senator. He released a television ad that touted their 80 percent-aligned voting record and showed the pair standing side by side, all smiles. Murkowski sent the campaign a cease-and-desist letter, demanding the ad be taken down, but Begich has thus far refused, saying it doesn’t violate any laws or ethics rules.
Fleek doesn’t sound like she’s sweating it and, to the contrary, she said that the response to the ad from Alaska voters has been very positive.
“It is a political year. We understand that the party politics influence what she’s saying,” Fleek said. “The record is still there. You can’t disagree with the facts. This is what voters want more of. They don’t want the bitterness. The reactions have been very good.”
Right now, whatever Begich is doing, it seems to be working — relatively speaking, at least. He holds a 2.2-percentage-point advantage over former attorney general Dan Sullivan, who officially became the Republican candidate after last week’s primary, according to TPM’s PollTracker average. It’s a more comfortable advantage than his Democratic peers in Louisiana, Michigan and North Carolina can claim.
GOP Senate candidate Dan Sullivan, center, with primary opponents Joe Miller, left, and Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, right, on Aug. 4. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen).
And there are at least some reasons to think that Begich’s Alaska-centric campaign is the right antidote to Sullivan specifically and the outside money that has sought to portray Begich as a puppet for Obama. A recent ad by American Crossroads, the Karl Rove-run super PAC, accused him of voting with Obama 97 percent of the time, just to give an example.
One attack against Sullivan by his Republican primary opponents was that he wasn’t a native Alaskan. Mead Treadwell, one of Sullivan’s foes, told Sullivan at a GOP primary debate that “the question of your residency here is an issue in this campaign,” according to KTUU.
So the Begich campaign has already been pushing out memos and airing television ads that feature both Treadwell’s criticism of Sullivan and warn of the alleged Sullivan support from outsiders like the Koch brothers. Shepro told TPM that getting the aid of outside money has historically been used as an attack line against opponents in Alaska.
It’s further evidence of the unusual environment in which Begich’s campaign takes place. In a way, Begich’s campaign could see every Crossroads and Koch-funded ad as an asset. It is just another example, they said, of how Mark Begich gets Alaska — “True Alaska,” as the text of his campaign ads say.
“It’s really absurd that they have decided that they’re going to overwhelm the Alaska airwaves,” Fleek said of the Crossroads and Koch money. “You can’t buy this Senate seat. Alaska voters know who the outside voices are.”