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On The Last Frontier, A Democrat Fights A Rising GOP Tide

McClatchy Tribune News Service Politics

On The Last Frontier, A Democrat Fights A Rising GOP Tide

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By Sean Cockerham, McClatchy Washington Bureau

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Control of the U.S. Senate might be decided by a race in which the campaigns fight over snowmobiling skills and where an endorsement from the nominee of a secessionist party who went to federal prison for corruption could help to sway the outcome.

Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) is battling for his political life in a state that votes Republican and hasn’t elected another Democrat to statewide office in 16 years, a state where Mitt Romney trounced President Barack Obama two years ago.

Republicans need to pick up six seats to take control of the Senate, and with GOP candidates looking strong in states such as Montana, South Dakota, West Virginia, Arkansas and Louisiana, Alaska could make the difference.

While the race has long been considered a tossup, the latest polling suggests that Republican challenger Dan Sullivan, who entered Alaska public life when then-Gov. Sarah Palin named him attorney general in 2009, has seized a narrow lead with a relentless effort to tie Begich to Obama.

The latest average of recent polls on the website Real Clear Politics shows Sullivan ahead by just under 5 percentage points.

“You’ve got the Sullivan campaign saying with every breath that Begich votes with Obama 97 percent of the time,” said Ivan Moore, a pollster and political consultant in Anchorage. “And you’ve got Begich asserting his independence from Obama with every breath.”

The race, and potentially control of the Senate, will be decided by voters such as Wendy Loya and Eland Conway. On a golden fall day in Alaska’s stunning Chugach Mountains, with a bite in the air promising the long subarctic winter to come, they hiked a trail accompanied by a husky and a malamute.

Loya, an ecologist, is voting for Begich, even though she thinks he veers too far to the right. Conway is going for Sullivan. Like many other Alaska voters McClatchy interviewed, he said his support for the Republican was less about Sullivan himself than tossing out the Democrat.

“It’s not necessarily what I like about Sullivan, it’s what I don’t like about Begich,” said Conway, operations officer at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.

Republicans have been eyeing Begich for defeat since 2008, when he unseated Stevens, the airport’s namesake and a legendary figure in Alaska who spent 40 years in the Senate. Stevens had been convicted of corruption a week before the election — a conviction tossed out a year later — but Begich still beat him by only about 1 percent of the vote.

Since that election, Begich has broken with the president on some big issues, including helping to stop a proposal that would have required background checks for anyone who buys a firearm at a gun show or over the Internet. But his vote in favor of the Affordable Care Act is a sore point with Alaskans such as Lidiya Zyatitsky. She backed Begich in his last election, but said she’d now support the Republican.

Steve Rollins, who plans to vote for Begich, said he’d expected the senator to be drawing more support and was getting worried.

“He has to distance himself away from Obama’s track record,” said Rollins, the dean of the library for the University of Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Pacific University.

Begich is trying to do exactly that. One of his TV ads shows him snowmobiling — in Alaska it’s called snow machining — at 21 degrees below zero on the icebound Arctic Ocean. “I’m Mark Begich. I fought for five years to get the permits so we could drill under this ice, and we won,” he says to the camera.

Sullivan fired back with an ad featuring X Games medalist Cory Davis of Soldotna, Alaska, accusing Begich of “pretending to ride” a snow machine. “I’m tired of the phony politicians and Mark Begich’s laaaame tricks,” Davis says. Begich says he was really riding, and that he in fact got frostbite.

The race also includes the figure of Victor Kohring, a former Republican legislator and notorious moocher — known for begging hamburgers from a corrupt oilman at McDonald’s — who in 2011 pleaded guilty in a bribery case. In August he won the U.S. Senate nomination of the Alaskan Independence Party, which advocates a vote on the state seceding and becoming an independent nation.

Kohring then abruptly dropped out — leaving the independence party without a candidate — and endorsed Sullivan.

Kohring had just a few percentage points of support at the most, but in such a close race it could make a difference if those votes swing to Sullivan. Begich’s campaign manager, Susanne Fleek-Green, said it “reeks of an orchestrated attempt to deliver Alaska’s U.S. Senate seat for Dan Sullivan.”

While his campaign downplays the importance and accuracy of polling in Alaska, Begich is well aware of the challenge he faces.

“One thing that people know about me, I will campaign like a mad dog,” Begich said in an interview. “I will be everywhere, talk to everybody.”

As the darkness of Alaska’s winter approaches, with moose hunting season over and Alaskans shopping for big screen TVs or planning Hawaii trips with the $1,884 oil dividend checks they all get from the state, Begich rose on a recent fall Saturday and went to meet Korean-American voters.

From there he shuttled across town to speak with students eating pizza at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He then did a radio interview, crashed a wedding and ended up at an Asian and Pacific Islander get-out-the-vote rally. “Tongans for Begich” campaign bracelets were passed out.

The next morning found Begich at an African-American church, where some 30 hands shot up when the pastor asked how many had met him — compared with just a few for the governor. Next was a speech to a commercial fishing group, then a candidate forum and finally a Hispanic rally at a Mexican restaurant.

Sullivan, a former official in the Bush administration, had no public events that weekend and refused requests for an interview about his campaign. But he has the backing of voters such as Bev Rhymer, a stay-at-home mom and rental manager who said, “Just about everything Obama tries to do I feel is really detrimental to our country” and that she appreciated Sullivan’s background as a Marine officer who was now in the Reserve.

Begich might also be suffering from what even supporters said was a bad decision to run a television ad that tried to attack Sullivan’s record as state attorney general by linking him to a horrific crime in which an older couple was killed and their toddler grandchild sexually assaulted. The fact-checking website PolitiFact gave the ad a “Pants on Fire” rating, and Begich pulled it from the air after the lawyer for the victims’ family demanded he do so.

Begich benefits, though, from an unprecedented ground operation in the Last Frontier. He has 16 field offices across the vast state, from the panhandle forests to the Bering Sea coast, dwarfing the Sullivan operation. One, in the fishing town of Dillingham, population 2,400, is in a laundromat.

Campaign phone calls to voters are being made in the indigenous Yup’ik Eskimo language. Begich has put together a squadron of rural staffers, local people, going door to door to get their neighbors registered, spreading the campaign slogan of “True Alaska” from the mountains to the tundra. Whether it’s enough to beat Sullivan’s advantage in places such as the Mat-Su, the home of the Palin clan, and the Kenai Peninsula remains to be seen.

“What’s going to be key is who gets their supporters to turn out,” said Alaska pollster Moore. “Even in elections as momentous as this, only a fraction of people show up to vote.”

Photo: SenateDemocrats via Flickr

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14 Comments

  1. Dominick Vila October 11, 2014

    Our chances of winning in states like North and South Dakota, Louisiana, and Arkansas are slim to none. It doesn’t matter how qualified and visionary the Democratic candidates are, or how corrupt or inept the Republican candidates are, the reason people are going to vote R in those states is because they want to derail President Obama’s agenda’s during his last two years in office.
    We keep talking about facts, about the strength of the economy, about job creation, deficit reductions, and other such issues, ignoring that what really matters to folks in the states mentioned in this article has a lot more to do with prejudice and ideology than a solid record or a vision.
    We may have a slight chance of hanging on to the Senate, but if we do it will be by the slimmest of margins. Maybe a tie, with VP Biden casting the deciding vote.

    Reply
    1. kenndeb October 11, 2014

      Your “facts” are nothing more than propaganda from this lawless regime. Never another liberal in ANY government office, EVER.

      1. Allan Richardson October 12, 2014

        If your attitude had prevailed in 1964, we would still have Jim Crow. If it had prevailed in 1932, America’s middle class would not exist; we would have an economy like that of Colombia, OR we would have been overrun by Germany and Japan. Either America’s own fascism, the big business tycoons, or foreign fascism, would have been victorious. Read about the world in which the novel “1984” takes place. An Anglo-American fascist regime, a Soviet communist regime, and a Chinese communist regime, all perpetually at war in an agreed-upon balance of terror, with the citizens being the ones who suffer. Electing a Republican fascist in 1932 would have brought about a result like that.

        1. kenndeb October 12, 2014

          Yes, and in 2008 we elected a liberal communist that is doing just what Orwell describe in “1984”. We would never have been overrun by any entity with an Armed populous in America. Something else the Emperor would like to do is disarm Americans, which would allow someone to overrun us, or our corrupt government to take complete control over us.

      2. BillP October 12, 2014

        Hey cowardly liar there will always be Liberal Senators in your home state of NY. You keep repeating the same old tired bs. It’s your supposed “facts” are nothing but lies. Still claiming that the dollar is tanking. Well the financial sections of any newspaper show a totally different story or as you call it propaganda. You need to read and research items before you post them on this site.

    2. edwardw69 October 11, 2014

      Let them have the Senate. Let everyone see what they do with it, like renaming the Atlantic Ocean for Ronald Reagan, and calling that a jobs bill. Banning contraception and calling that a jobs bill. Drastically cutting taxes on the richest Americans and calling that a jobs bill. By 2016, most people will be thoroughly disgusted.

    3. charleo1 October 11, 2014

      I read your post, Dom, way early this morning, and have been
      thinking about it off, and on, since. And you’re right, of course. The
      Dems. will be lucky to hold off Republicans in the Senate to a tie. And that, in my personal, nearly meaningless opinion, is a crying shame.
      However, the silver lining to my decidedly dark cloud, is that whether
      the Left, and center hold, and the Democrats maintain the slightest of
      a majority. Or, the Republicans run the proverbial table, and with it, the control of Congress. The outcome will reflect the collective will, of
      that segment of the people, who’s strong opinions, or their sense of
      civic duty, ideology, or as you pointed out, self interested prejudice,
      or racial animus. Whatever it might be that motivated them to show up. They did so, and will by that single collective act, define, and
      determine the course of the Country. By how much, or by how little,
      we can’t possibly know. The decision between Bush or Gore in 2000,
      seemed as pedestrian as paper, vs. plastic. At least to the casual
      voter. The economy, outside of a hiccup, caused by the dot com
      bust, was still decent. We were a powerful Nation at peace. And politicians that looked and sounded like Bush, or Gore, are pretty much interchangeable, or so we thought. Nader threw the election to
      Bush. But so what? Perot threw the Dems a win in ’92. It’s only politics. And most people will tell you, they don’t like politics, and so know almost nothing about them. Republicans seem to know this,
      infinitely better than Democrats. Their approach to voters is like the
      mule skinner, that first hits the poor animal directly between the eyes.
      Explaining, that first I must get the beast’s attention. As in, by next
      election, we’ll be as insolvent as Greece, if we fail to stop Obama’s
      destructive agenda! The fact the economy has improved by leaps, and bounds, comparatively is peanuts, if we’re being reduced to no more than a Carnival Cruise destination. Bam! Right on the forehead.
      And that’s only the Republican politicians talking. I was channel surfing the other morning, and ran across one of my family’s all time
      favorite preachers, when I was growing up, Jack Van Impe. I couldn’t
      believe this guy was still around. So I stopped and listened to what
      was obviously the tail end of a sermon. The usual fair. With a lot of
      Jesus will help you, if I ask Him to. And I’d love to hear from you.
      And of course, this satellite time is not cheap. But what got my attention, and I’m sure the attention of all his regular listeners, was the CD he was selling. “Does a Muslim Flag Fly Over The White House?” Was the title. Who knew right? And why ask, if it’s just the ordinary, American, Stars and Stripes? Like I said, right between the
      eyes!

    4. elw October 12, 2014

      I agree if every Democratic candidate keeps their heads and continually remind people of what has been accomplished despite the opposition in Congress and what is at stake and how important their vote is we will win that chance. The key to this race is getting the voter out to do their job.

  2. Wedge Shot October 11, 2014

    Begich needs to say that even if he did vote for some of the Obama agenda the Republican have voted 100% for doing nothing except shutting down the US government. In fact because of the Republicans this Congress has been the worst in out 230 plus years history.

    Reply
  3. Gunnar Jensen October 11, 2014

    Sometimes it looks like today’s liberalism is little more than communism without the manifesto.

    Reply
    1. jmprint October 13, 2014

      Can you explain your thought.

  4. elw October 12, 2014

    I stopped reading the article as soon as I found its based its conclusions on the average of polls. The average of polls is just another way of providing information that mean less than what ever the data said in the first place. You cannot average data that has been collected using different method and believe somehow you have better information to rely on. I have no idea who started using the “average of polls” but they did not work as demonstrated in 2012 when the average of polls showed a close race that ended up not being close at all. I figure if the average of polls shows close races it is over estimating republican votes and is good news for the Democrats. So do not let them get you down, do you job and vote. This race is not over until all the votes are counted and make yours is in there to be counted.

    Reply
  5. leadvillexp October 12, 2014

    The Dems might go down this year. I am a Republican that supports most of the Democratic ideals. The last two elections I voted for President Obama. He took on gun control in his last term. I won’t support anyone that doesn’t support the Constitution and Bill of Rights. While I support Gay rights, women’s rights on abortion, freedom of religion etc. I also support the right to defend yourself. The Bill of Rights says this and that also means military grade weapons. This goes back before the founding fathers and they agreed. So this year I have to go back to the Republican Party. If the Democrats won’t support the Constitution I will vote them out and the Republicans seem to be the only other option.

    Reply
    1. jmprint October 13, 2014

      It bothers me for people to say that we don’t defend the constitution.
      Parents want their children to be safer, is that to much to ask. There is no need for anyone to have an ak-47 for pleasure. We have laws to protect, just like cigarette smoking. Drinking under age. ALL TO PROTECT PEOPLE, not to infringe on constitutional rights. Do the women, gay and the world a favor and vote democrat. Show the Kock brothers that your vote can’t be bought.

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