'Republicans aren't good at ground games in Alaska. That's their weakness'
With an unpopular president, and the GOP in control elsewhere in Alaska, Democratic senator Mark Begich appears hugely vulnerable. So why can't Republicans land a killer blow?
Art Hackney has more than three decades of strategizing for Republican election campaigns in Alaska under his belt. And he’s rarely been so frustrated.
From an office lined with awards for punchy political campaigns on behalf of senators, congressmen and governors, Hackney has watched the prospects for the man he picked to take Alaska's seat in the US Senate for the GOP ebb, something he blames on Republican strategists "back east", who, he says, have got the state all wrong.
"It's a little worse than frustrating. It's immensely perplexing, because it's beyond belief what happened," he said.
The national Republican leadership in Washington – 'Outside', as anywhere beyond Alaska's borders is widely spoken of – has targeted the state’s junior senator, Mark Begich, as a vulnerable Democrat in its bid to win control of both houses of Congress in November’s elections.
Looking from Outside it should, theoretically, be easy enough for the GOP to defeat Begich. President Obama is deeply unpopular in Alaska and Republicans hold the state's other Senate seat, its only seat in the House of Representatives, its governorship, and control of the state legislature.
But Hackney said that has led GOP Outsiders to assume Alaska is a classic Republican state and impose a template election strategy with campaign ads about issues Alaskan voters have barely heard of and attacks on the incumbent that have backfired. Meanwhile, Begich is running what even opponents acknowledge is a strong campaign on the ground – he’s renowned for stopping unannounced at bingo halls to call numbers – that has given him a shot of holding his seat. Polls put him neck and neck with potential Republican candidates.
“It's an uphill battle for a Democrat, because the demographics are against them,” said Marc Hellenthal, a pollster and political strategist in Anchorage. “But if you asked me to predict today who's going to win, I'd predict Begich in a close election. He's a better campaigner.”
“The way things are, this is Begich's to lose. It's going to be very hard to beat him. It can be done, but not like this,” he said. “Right now the concern is about whether Republicans are a little too giddy about this whole election cycle.”
Begich is taking nothing for granted. At a lakeside picnic rally about an hour’s drive from Anchorage on Sunday, he cautioned supporters that a juggernaut of Republican money – “upwards of $30m” – is being poured into Alaska to try to “buy a senator and control Washington”.
“The only way we’re going to win is with people, pushing back,” he said, exhorting supporters to turn out everyone they know to vote.
Begich won his Senate seat six years ago by a narrow margin in circumstances that still anger some Alaskans. He beat Ted Stevens, a Republican who held the seat for 40 years, weeks after Stevens was convicted of corruption. The conviction was quashed months later, but by then the state had lost Stevens' prized seat on the Senate appropriations committee, which he’d used for years to funnel billions of federal dollars to voter-pleasing projects in Alaska. Stevens died in a plane crash in 2010.
Begich has tried to pick up Stevens' mantle by positioning himself as independent of his party, fighting only for Alaska. He is criss-crossing the state, pressing home the message that with a Democrat in the White House, and a Republican holding its other Senate seat, Alaska needs a Democrat in the Senate to have leverage with the Obama administration.
A Thorn In The Side
Begich has called himself "a thorn in the side" of Obama as he successfully pressed the administration to open up new areas of the arctic to oil exploration. He says it is his influence as a member of the president’s party that kept the Pentagon from moving F-16 fighter jets from an Alaska military base and the Democratic leadership from cutting tax subsidies to oil companies.
If he loses in November, he says, it will cost the Alaska his seat on committees dealing with appropriations, fishing and hunting, and Indian affairs that are key to the interests of the state.
“When we had an all Republican delegation (in Congress), Arctic oil and gas was never opened, the F-16 was on the threat list. I'm there as a Democrat to push back if the Obama administration does something that could hurt Alaska. They have to listen to me,” he told the Guardian.
Alaska Republicans have had some success in pushing back by accusing Begich of claiming credit for the work of others on behalf of the state, and by painting him as a lackey of Obama for approving the appointment of officials who blocked oil exploration. They scorn Begich over the only legislation he has guided to fruition – a bill changing the name of a federal courthouse – and mocked campaign adverts in which the senator, who is widely regarded as a policy wonk, acts the rugged outdoorsman, likening them to ads for erectile dysfunction.
Begich still doesn't know who his Republican opponent will be. The August 19 Republican primary appears to be a toss-up between the man Hackney persuaded to run – Dan Sullivan, the state's former natural resources commissioner – and Mead Treadwell, Alaska's lieutenant governor.
The national Republican establishment favors Sullivan, who has a background in the military, the US State Department and as Alaska attorney general. But he is just four percentage points ahead of Treadwell in the latest polls with about 13% of Republican voters undecided. Neither candidate is a certain bet against Begich.
Whoever Begich faces, Hackney said the Republican party will struggle to beat him if it continues to apply a national template to the campaign and does not take Alaska's different political character into account. The first mistake, he said, is to regard Alaska as classically Republican when half of registered voters do not declare adherence to any political party.
"A lot of people consider Alaska a red state and it's not. It's a very independent state. We have many times elected people who have pretty liberal tendencies," he said.
Hellenthal said that while Alaska may look Republican to Outsiders who know about Alaska’s oil, its residents’ suspicion of federal regulation and Sarah Palin, it does not fit the mould. It is liberal on many social issues with 58% of voters describing themselves as pro-choice. Three-quarters of voters support a ballot proposal to raise Alaska's minimum wage and nearly half back legalizing marijuana. Alaska abolished the death penalty before it became a state in 1959 and recent attempts in the legislature to revive it failed.
Support for Palin, who as governor enjoyed the highest approval ratings in the history of Alaska, was built not on Tea Party policies but because she ramped up taxes on oil companies to fund state programs and cash handouts to residents.
But the reality that local politicians say often eludes Outsiders is that while there may be deep hostility to the federal government in general, and Obama in particular over his oil, environment and health policies, the state is heavily dependent on large subsidies from Washington.
Alaska has for many years received more per-capita assistance from the central government than any other state. Federal money pays for air strips, utilities and roads to isolated communities. Many Native American villages, where the election could be decided, are entirely reliant on government funds to exist. Federal money subsidies the delivery of everyday items, such as soft drinks, to the most distant communities.
“There's a paradox there," said Hellenthal. "We're a welfare state and we oppose welfare."
A failure to appreciate the political significance of this underpinned Alaska's largest political upset of recent years.
Joe Miller beat Senator Lisa Murkowski in the 2010 Republican primary with a campaign built around Tea Party values, including a promise to slash federal spending in Alaska. Murkowski won in the general election as a write-in candidate in large part because of support of the indigenous population and trade unions alarmed at Miller's threat to cut off the money from Washington.
Miller is running for the Republican nomination again this year but the polls put him in a distant third place.
Mirth or exasperation
With control of the US Senate at stake, and the supreme court having unshackled campaign spending, the Alaska race has attracted more money than any in the state’s history. Much of it has come from two independent groups – the billionaire Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity and Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, for which Hackney is a strategist in Alaska. They have flooded television stations with anti-Begich advertising, but some of it has been an embarrassment and, arguably, helped the Democratic candidate.
The example both sides point to with either mirth or exasperation is an advert by Americans for Prosperity attempting to link Begich with a carbon tax, a bête noire of conservatives.
"I don't know doctors, lawyers or even Indian chiefs who even comprehend what a carbon tax even means to them or why it applies to them. It was a million and a half dollars that got flushed down the toilet,” said Hackney.
Another ad, showing what appeared to be an Alaskan woman in her kitchen complaining about Begich, backfired when it was revealed she was an actress in Maryland.
Jim Lottsfeldt, who heads a pro-Begich Super Pac, Put Alaska First, is contemptuous.
“The Republicans have cookie-cutter ads. They’re playing a national campaign in the wrong state,” he said.
Hellenthal said independent groups draw suspicion because they are funded by Outside money. He points to a massive advertising campaign by oil companies to influence voters over a ballot proposition that seeks to reinstate higher taxes on oil revenues imposed when Palin was governor but overturned by her successor.
"The oil companies have spent over $7m with no expenditure at all on the other side. That's gigantic expenditure for Alaska, more than Begich and Sullivan together have spent. The poll results show the oil companies are losing by 3%, exactly where they stood last September.
"Seven million dollars later they've accomplished nothing," said Hellenthal. "Part of it is at the end of the ads it says: paid for by Exxon, BP and ConocoPhillips. Well, Exxon and BP don't have good track records. All the credibility goes down the drain once you see the disclaimer.”
Still, the money coming in from Outside has Begich concerned. In his speech to supporters at the lakeside picnic on Sunday, he swiftly moved to attacking the Kochs.
“The Koch brothers, these are the people who … closed down a refinery, laid off 80 hardworking Alaskans, left dirty water to be cleaned up. Even the governor has worked out it's dirty and is suing the Koch brothers. These people have no care on Alaska issues. All they want to do is buy a senator and control Washington,” he said.
Speaking to the Guardian, Begich was dismissive of the adverts as “global, national mumbo-jumbo” and “talking points from Washington DC”. But he said he was nonetheless concerned that the mud will stick.
“That does worry me, because people have busy lives. They don't have the time to go into the details of a policy statement or details of a campaign,” he said. “Voters go: is that the truth? They're not sure. That's what's corrosive.”
'We've barely laid a finger on Dan Sullivan'
Begich would appear vulnerable to the right kind of attack. Criticism from Alaska’s only member of the US House of Representatives, Don Young, who accused Begich of claiming credit for the work of others, put the senator on the back foot. So did a claim by Sullivan in an campaign email that Begich voted 97% of the time with Obama. Politifact rated that claim ‘mostly false’, but damage was done because it undercut Begich's claim that he stands up to the president.
Tellingly, both of those attacks came not from the Republican national strategists but from within Alaska.
Lottsfeldt said his own polls showed the attack adverts hurt Begich by increasing the number of people who viewed him negatively, but they did not shift his overall position against a Republican candidate. He interpreted that as showing that while people are not happy Begich voted for Obamacare, for instance, it is not what will decide how they will cast their ballot in November.
“That's why it looks good for Begich. They've already thrown everything at him and here he stands. We've barely laid a finger on Dan Sullivan. He's totally unknown to most people,” he said.
Hackney said there is still plenty of ammunition to fire at Begich, He is so exasperated with the national operatives that he has established a Super Pac, Alaska's Energy, America's Values, to attack the senator on his record, including his tenure as mayor of Anchorage, which Hackney characterizes as an unhappy time of rising taxes, and his ties to Obama.
"You're not going to beat Mark Begich if you get down in the weeds on issues, particularly if they’re issues no one in Alaska cares about. Voters will be confused," said Hackney. "What the voters do understand is that Begich voted for all of Obama's judicial nominees, all of whom have been anti-gun. That people understand.”
For all the Outside money, the race may well be decided by organization on the ground, where Begich looks to have the advantage, with a campaign structure already embedded in many rural areas. Hellenthal said that the indigenous vote, which he said in recent elections accounted for about 12% of ballots cast, could make the difference between victory and defeat.
“Begich has got a good organization, and it's going to be difficult for any of his opponents to have that,” said Hellenthal. “They can't really bring in an out-of-state person that knows the nuances of Alaska. We are different. Outside of Anchorage you start to notice it very very quickly, especially when you hit the bush and the hundreds and hundreds of villages which you can only get to by small plane.
"Trying to work out how to work on a ground game … Begich knows that, he knows how. The others have never done it. Republicans aren't good at ground games in Alaska. That's their weakness."