In Alaska, sniping before next week's Republican primary turns Senate race into a tossup

The Associated Press
August 13, 2014 06:09 AM

In this photo taken on Aug. 9, 2014, Alaska Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Dan Sullivan addresses supporters at a campaign event in Juneau, Needing to net six seats in November to regain control of the U.S. Senate, Republicans ought to be able to count on reliably conservative Alaska as something of a gimme. But they’ll first have to settle on a candidate. And as the Republicans on next Tuesday’s ballot snipe, bicker and fight their way toward the primary, some are worried their candidate - no matter who it might be - will emerge too weakened to defeat Democratic Sen. Mark Begich. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - As the Republicans on next Tuesday's ballot snipe, bicker and fight their way toward the Senate primary, some are worried their candidate — no matter who it might be — will emerge too weakened to defeat Democratic Sen. Mark Begich.

In some ways, the same schisms dividing establishment Republicans from the party's ultraconservative tea party wing in the rest of the country are playing out in Alaska.

Former state attorney general and natural resources commissioner Dan Sullivan has the backing of major Republican donors and Washington-based power brokers. Sullivan, who worked for the State Department in the George W. Bush administration, is the target of populist, socially conservative broadsides from tea party favourite Joe Miller, who pulled off a surprise upset of Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski in state's 2010 primary, only to see her win the general election in an historic write-in campaign.

Should Miller lose on Tuesday, Republicans are worried he could again mount a third-party bid and effectively hand the election to Begich. Miller has largely denied that's in his plans.

The establishment-tea party divide is magnified in the nation's geographically largest state, which may be its smallest politically, with fewer than 500,000 people registered to vote.

It's the sort of place where Miller might campaign by waving campaign signs at passing cars with a group of volunteers, as he did Monday, not far from where Sullivan's daughters and a clutch of Treadwell supporters had just done the same.

Miller is still smarting over 2010 and blames the state's political establishment for his loss to Murkowski.

Marc Hellenthal, a pollster in Anchorage not working for any of the candidates, said the broadsides are paid for by the first-ever influx of outside cash into Alaska. Both Sullivan and Begich are backed by outside money that can gobble up airtime in the sparsely populated state, where television and radio airtime is cheap.

"This is our most intense primary ever," he said.

The attacks have driven up negative perceptions of Sullivan and tied Treadwell to deeply conservative stances, such as opposition to abortion in cases of rape or incest, that could haunt him in a race against Begich.

Waiting for whoever survives is Begich, who has spent much of the past six months softening up Sullivan with ads attacking him as a carpetbagger. The first-term incumbent narrowly won the 2008 election against Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, who spent most of the campaign fighting corruption charges.

Despite Alaska's partisan record — the state hasn't voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964 and Begich is the only Democratic statewide office holder — national Democrats are increasingly confident about his chances.

___

Associated Press writers Becky Bohrer and Nicholas Riccardi contributed to this report.

Follow Becky Bohrer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/beckybohrerap and Nicholas Riccardi at https://twitter.com/NickRiccardi /


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