Vulnerable Senator Slugs It Out With Fellow Democrat

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An internal feud between Senate Democrats spilled back into public last week, with Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) berating Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) because the latter “refuses to try and understand the history and culture of a great state like Alaska.”

The clash cropped up as McCaskill sought answers from the Obama administration about federal contracting perks for Alaska Native Corporations.

It’s unusual for Senate Democrats to attack each other so publicly, and Begich pulled no punches in his Wednesday statement. He ripped McCaskill’s efforts to scrutinize the contracting benefits for the native corporations as “misguided” on the same day that McCaskill sent a letter requesting information from the Small Business Administration.

“It’s no secret many senators still have quite the learning curve when it comes to understanding the unique needs of Alaska,” Begich said in his statement. “I’m afraid my colleague … has trouble understanding Alaska history, even with my repeated attempts to reason with her.”

There is a lot of context and history to parse here. Most importantly, Begich is considered one of the more vulnerable Senate Democrats this fall and is in a closely-watched race; right now, he averages an 8 percentage-point lead over his prospective Republican challenger, according to TPM PollTracker. The messaging from his office in the last year has been, as is often the case for members in his position, narrowly focused on local issues: Energy and fishing policy have been mainstays in his office’s press releases. He has also taken his shots at the Obama White House.

So it’s hard to see much downside in him going to bat for a popular Alaska program and battling another Democrat in the process. And given the opportunity to respond to Begich by TPM, McCaskill’s office declined.

For her part, McCaskill, who heads a contracting oversight subcommittee, has a history with oversight of Alaska Native Corporations dating back to 2009.

ANCs, as they’re known, were created back in the 1970s to simultaneously facilitate the building of an oil pipeline and help provide economic opportunities for members of Alaska’s native population, who were given shares in these new business entities, per ProPublica.

To further encourage their development, Congress gave ANCs a number of advantages. For example, they’re allowed to participate in an SBA program that helps disadvantaged companies receive federal contracts. Within that program, they have a number of special perks: They can have unlimited contracts (both in number and in size) and non-native managers.

But they have been scrutinized in recent years. A 2010 Washington Post investigation found that the financial benefits of the corporations had not been reaching the intended population because non-native executives had been taking home much of the profits.

McCaskill, who had already raised concerns about ANCs in 2009, drafted and introduced legislation that fall that would eliminate most of the special treatment the corporations receive.

“We’ve seen that a very small portion of these companies’ profits are reaching native Alaskans, so it’s time to acknowledge the fact that this program is not effective for either native Alaskans or taxpayers,” McCaskill said in a statement introducing the bill, which never made it past the committee stage.

That’s when the Begich-McCaskill feud started to take form.

“This bill is misguided, misinformed and shows a clear lack of understanding for how important the program is for the people of Alaska,” Begich told Government Executive in October 2010 in a statement similar to the one released this week.

The dispute then largely laid dormant over the next few years, aside from one brief flurry of headlines in July 2011 when the Government Accountability Office found lax oversight of ANCs. Until the last few days. That’s when McCaskill sent a letter to the SBA that sparked Begich’s aggressive public response, asking for ANC contracting information.

A Begich aide told TPM that the senators have discussed the issues in recent years, which included Begich extending an offer for McCaskill to visit Alaska (an offer that has not yet been taken up, the aide said.) The aide would not comment on whether the two had spoken since Begich’s statement.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee declined to comment to TPM.

This post has been updated.

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