Is Alaska's Senate Race Slipping Away From Republicans?

Democratic Senator Mark Begich's smart campaign could be enough to fend off Dan Sullivan—even in a red state.
Cecil Sanders/Flickr

Republicans landed their candidate of choice in Alaska on Tuesday when Dan Sullivan won his primary for Senate. But the GOP should hold off on the celebrations: So far, Sullivan's victory is one of the few things to go right in the nation's northernmost state. 

Alaska was always pegged as one of the Republican Party's best pickup opportunities in 2014, one of seven red states that hold the key to retaking the Senate majority. But plans to take down Democratic Senator Mark Begich have been hindered almost from the get-go, thanks to the incumbent's political acumen and an early and fierce barrage of attacks against Sullivan.

"He is damaged—there's no two ways about it," said Art Hackney, an Alaska-based Republican operative who runs a super PAC allied with Sullivan. "And it's going to take some repair."

As a result, even as the GOP grows more optimistic about a dozen other races across the midterm map, some of the party's operatives worry that, of all places, bright-red Alaska has quietly slipped away. And it explains why some Democrats, nervously eyeing difficult contests elsewhere, now consider Alaska a likelier hold than some purple states such as Colorado or Iowa.

Republicans believe that Sullivan, a former assistant secretary of State to Condoleezza Rice, can still defeat Begich because the state's sharp dislike of President Obama will prove too much for the senator to overcome. An electoral wave in favor of the GOP—an outcome some analysts are declining to rule out—might be enough to carry Sullivan to victory, especially against a senator who managed to win only a narrow plurality of the vote against the scandal-plagued Ted Stevens in 2008.

In a post-primary statement, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Jerry Moran tied Begich to the president, likely the first of many similar messages to come from Republicans in the general election. "Mark Begich has championed the Obama agenda," Moran said in the statement. "He has voted for the Obama agenda a staggering 97 percent of the time—including costly energy taxes, spending increases, and of course, Obamacare."

But few Republicans, even some Sullivan allies, expressed confidence that the GOP nominee will hold up well in a one-on-one comparison with the one-term senator. In unusually candid interviews, many of the state's GOP operatives said that Begich—a former mayor of the state's largest city, Anchorage, and the son of a congressman—has proven the better candidate thus far. Many analysts have praised not just Begich's outreach to local Alaska voting blocs but his early TV ads, one of which recalled the death of his father, who was killed in a plane crash while in office.

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Alex Roarty is a politics writer for National Journal.

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