Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Race of the Day- Alaska U.S. Senate

97 Days Until Election Day

Status: Democrat Incumbent
2012 Presidential Result: Red State (West)

Outlook: Tossup (R)

By the time the polls close in Alaska on Election Night, it is likely that everyone will already know if Republicans have already picked up enough seats to win a majority or if their efforts in several states had fallen short. However, it is very possible that the race that decides control of the Senate will be in the Last Frontier State.

Six years ago, it took days before a winner was known. The narrow victor was Democrat Mark Begich, (who had been leading by wider margins in the final polls that year.) Then the Mayor of Anchorage, Begich was born and raised in the state, and was in fact the son of the state's Congressman who died in a plane crash when Mark was a child. The first Democrat sent to Washington by Alaska voters in decades, Begich also became at the time, the only Senator without a college degree.

While his victory over Republican Ted Stevens was impressive, in many ways it came with an asterisk. Stevens, the most senior Senate Republican had been in Washington since the 1960s and was a political institution in the state. However, the 84 year old incumbent spent nearly the entire 2008 campaign under indictment for accepting gifts and making false statements. Anxious to clear his name ahead of the election, Stevens opted for a speedy trial and just days before the November election, he was found guilty. It would have been extremely difficult for a convicted felon to win a hotly contested Senate race, no matter the circumstances with many political figures of both parties calling for him to resign, but others did not count Stevens out. After all the votes were counted, Stevens had lost by a few thousand votes and Begich was headed to Washington.

That was not quite the end of the story though, as just months later, evidence of prosecutor misconduct came to light and the indictment and convictions of Stevens were formally overturned. Few have been able to argue that if not for what would ultimately be an unjust conviction (brought about by charges from a Republican Justice Department), that he would not have won another term in the Senate. Some Republicans, called for Begich to resign and for a special election to occur. Obviously, that was not going to happen. Sadly, the false conviction and departure from the Senate likely cost Stevens his life as well as he died in a 2010 airplane crash. Alaskans expressed a great deal of affection in the aftermath of Stevens' death and it certainly brought renewed attention on the circumstances of Begich's 2008 victory.

Now thought, it is clear that it is Begich's record in the Senate and the political nature of his state that will determine if he will be sent back to Washington or not. The incumbent is well-funded and has taken steps to distance himself from national Democrats and the Obama Administration on issues such as energy policy. However, Begich does still have a mostly liberal voting record and in a state where Republicans usually win, could find himself in serious political danger.

While the state's GOP Governor decided to seek reelection instead of mounting a Senate campaign, other Republicans have jumped into the field. One of them is Joe Miller, a former Judge who in a Tea Party backed upset defeated Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski in a 2010 primary. It looked likely that the polarizing Miller had stamped his ticket to Washington, but he proved to be a weak candidate in many ways, and Murkowski enacted her revenge by winning the November election as a write-in. Had she not continued her campaign as a write-in, it is very possible that Miller would have lost to a third-tier Democrat opponent.

With the split in the state GOP continuing, it had been thought that Miller could win a Senate primary again and cost Republicans a chance of ousting Begich. However, it appears that GOP primary voters have soured on Miller enough that he has consistently been running a distant third in Republican polls and is unlikely to advance any further.

The upcoming August primary for the Senate nomination has for months looked like it would come down to a contest between two competitive Republicans, who will have the opportunity to win a key pickup race. Mead Treadwell, the state's Lt. Governor is locked in a battle with Dan Sullivan (not to be confused with the Dan Sullivan, who is the Mayor of Alaska's largest city and likely GOP nominee for Lt. Governor this year), who was appointed Alaska Attorney General and later Natural Resources Director.

Unlike Begich, neither leading Republican candidate is a native to the state, with both Treadwell and Sullivan moving to Alaska as adults. The campaign started with Treadwell being considered the favorite to win the primary, but by all indications, Sullivan, who has raised more money, has been looking like at least a slight favorite to win the primary. It is my sense that Treadwell is considered a bit more to the right than Sullivan, but both certainly appear to be conservatives who would be electable (unlike Miller.)

Sullivan, who also serves in the United States Marine Corps, has the support of many alumni of the George W. Bush Administration, including Crossroads GPS PAC-Master Karl Rove. The sometimes influential Club for Growth, has also weighed in on the side of the first time candidate. It will be interesting to see if there is any real effect on the Senate primary due to possible confusion of Republican voters regarding the other Dan Sullivan on the ballot. Some might think he is running for both offices and might only vote for one of them.

It has been to Begich's advantage that the GOP primary has been so closely contested for so long but Republicans are likely to unite after that contest is over. The fact that even most in the Tea Party seem to have abandoned Joe Miller seems to be indication that everyone is focused on electability. There is an outside chance that a bitter Miller could try to somehow run as a third party candidate in November and siphon votes away from the GOP nominee, but that is probably not going to happen. As a Republican far outside the state, I think that both Treadwell and Sullivan are strong candidates, but I am more inclined to think that Sullivan would do a better job in appealing to Independent voters and crossover Democrats.

Bullish Republicans consider this race to already be something like a sure GOP pickup. I would caution them about being overly confident. Besides being well-funded, Begich is an incumbent (not under indictment) and not many sitting Democrat Senators have lost in the past several cycles. There is still a lot of uncertainty in the race until after the Republican primary and the state is known as being a bit hard to poll overall. A lot of early polls show that Begich is either ahead of well in the game at this point, but there is also a history of Republicans running better on Election Day in Alaska than the final polling indicates.

As of now, I think I have to still consider the race to be a Tossup. It could be very close up to the end, but I also would not discount the possibility of a late surge to the eventual GOP nominee, who could go on to a solid win. If there is any significant national tide in favor of Republicans, as many expect, it is hard to see how Begich holds on.

The most recent headlines regarding the race involve how Murkowski, Begich's moderate Republican homestate Senate colleague has taken issue with his attempts to feature their working relationship as part of his campaign ads. She has made it clear that she prefers a Republican wins (as long as it is not Miller I suppose.)

The Democrats will try localize the race and hope that enough people like Begich personally to overlook any anger or distrust they may have towards Barack Obama or Harry Reid. We will know more about the state of this race after Labor Day, but I think that the Republican slant of the midterm electorate in Alaska will be enough to take out a fairly accidental Democrat Senator. Two GOP candidates could do it but it will probably be Dan Sullivan.

Sullivan campaign link:

Senate races predicted thus far: 0 D, 2 R (1 Safe, 1 Tossup)
Overall predicted thus far: 34 D, 32 R (net Republican gain of 1)