By Nathaniel Herz, Alaska Dispatch News, Anchorage (MCT)
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Alaska’s Republican U.S. Senate candidate Dan Sullivan took and held an early lead over incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Begich with more than a third of the precincts reporting Tuesday night.
With 160 of 441 precincts reporting, Sullivan led 49 percent to 44 percent. The margin remained essentially the same from the first returns earlier in the evening.
The Senate race was the costliest campaign in the state’s history, with more than $50 million spent by the two major candidates and the groups that supported them.
The race was viewed as potentially pivotal in flipping control of the Senate out of the hands of Democrats.
By the time polls closed in Alaska at 8 p.m., however, control of the Senate was already decided, with Republicans winning key races in Colorado, Arkansas, North Carolina and Kentucky.
Sullivan appeared at the Election Central gathering place at the Egan Convention Center just before 9 p.m., with his family and a crowd of several dozen sign-waving supporters in tow.
He did three television interviews, then appeared on a talk radio program, telling host Dave Stieren — who was paid to consult with Sullivan’s campaign earlier this year — that the early results were “a little bit of a surprise to me.”
Asked about his race in the context of the strong Republican showings in Senate races around the country, Sullivan said: “We’ll let the evening play out.”
Asked about the returns in those states, a spokesman for Begich, Max Croes, said in a phone interview: “We’re focused on Alaska, the same that we have been our entire campaign.”
State elections officials are also expecting tens of thousands of additional votes that won’t be counted until next week, at the earliest. That includes some 20,000 absentee votes the state hadn’t counted as of Tuesday evening, and even more absentee ballots will continue to arrive until a Nov. 19 deadline.
In Alaska, Sullivan was the favorite as voting began Tuesday. He’d led in nearly all of the pre-election polls, and Republicans outnumber Democrats in Alaska by a 2-to-1 margin — though there are more independent and unaffiliated voters than people in both parties combined.
Begich, a former Anchorage mayor, won his seat in 2008 by less than 4,000 votes, just one week after the long-serving incumbent, Ted Stevens, was convicted of federal corruption charges that were later tossed. On Tuesday, Begich was seeking to win his fourth straight campaign, a string dating back to his first successful bid for mayor in 2003.
Backed by an $11 million ad campaign funded primarily by a Washington, D.C.,-based Democratic super PAC and by a seven-figure ground game investment by the national Democratic Party, Begich was aiming to prove that his election in 2008 was more than a fluke, and that Alaska could elect a Democrat on his own merits.
The Democrats emphasized instances when Begich said he’s bucked President Barack Obama and his shared positions with Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski. They also touted Begich’s knowledge of Alaska issues, his friendly positions to Alaska Natives, to seniors, and to pro-choice women, and they tried to tag Sullivan, who was raised in Ohio, as an evasive outsider backed by big-moneyed interests.
Stephanie Simon, 51, a stay-at-home mom who was voting in East Anchorage, said Tuesday she voted for Begich even though she’s a Republican.
“He really does work across party lines,” she said, adding that Begich and his wife are “very earnest about what they’re trying to do for Alaska.”
Henry Watson, a 34-year-old African-American from Anchorage who early-voted for Begich last week, said he chose the Democrat because “he’s more for minorities.”
“He comes to our functions, and he has a voice,” Watson said outside his Midtown Anchorage polling place. “He doesn’t show up just for us to see his face.”
Sullivan is a former state attorney general and natural resources commissioner who served in the U.S. Department of State under President George W. Bush. His campaign stuck to general themes like energy security and federal overreach while joining with big-spending independent Republican groups to link Begich to Obama’s unpopularity in Alaska, and to the president’s signature health care bill, the Affordable Care Act.
Mike Hinshaw, 65, said Tuesday he picked Sullivan because Begich is “just in lockstep with Obama.”
“And that’s sad for America,” said Hinshaw, a veteran and registered independent who was voting in East Anchorage. Begich is under the thumb of Harry Reid, the Democratic leader of the Senate, Hinshaw added, saying Democrats only allow Begich to vote against his party “to make himself look good.”
An early voter for Sullivan, Sherrie Walker, 57, of Eagle River, said she was “not sold” on the Republican, adding that “he hasn’t addressed” the attacks on his campaign’s funders, and on his residency history.
“But it’s better than the Big Itch,” she said, using her nickname for Begich.
Several voters said they’d been frustrated by the flood of negative campaign ads on television and radio this year — ads backed by more than $50 million that came primarily from the independent groups, which were newly empowered by a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that invalidated limits on political spending from unions and corporations.
“I was just disgusted by all the negative ads,” said Scott Hines, a 55-year-old Anchorage hospital worker who voted early.
David Breen, 25, also said he was frustrated by the negative tone, but he added that it didn’t affect his vote.
“Both candidates were really dirty this election,” Breen said. “That made that issue moot for me.”
Photo: SenateDemocrats via Flickr