How a Pro-Begich PAC Won Freedom From Harry Reid

With a critical Senate race in play, the Put Alaska First PAC wins a rare blessing from Democratic leaders to run its own operation.

Longtime Alaska political consultants Jim Lottsfeldt and Art Hackney may not see eye to eye often, but when it comes to the state's battleground Senate race, they do agree on one thing: Alaska races need to be run by Alaskans.

Both men have been running political campaigns in the state for decades, Hackney for Republicans and Lottsfeldt for candidates on both sides. Now as their home state plays host to one of the premier contests this cycle, Lottsfeldt and Hackney see the millions of dollars pouring into the state from D.C. groups and think they're the men to manage it.

The problem is getting these outside allies to hand over the reins.

Lottsfeldt runs Put Alaska First, the super PAC that supports Democratic Sen. Mark Begich and has received more than $4.5 million from the Harry Reid-backed Senate Majority PAC. In fact, Senate Majority PAC is nearly his only donor. Both Republicans and Democrats agree that Lottfeldt's efforts with Put Alaska First have been formidable. The main target of their attacks, Republican front-runner Dan Sullivan, has watched his primary lead dwindle to the point where the NRSC has considered intervening on his behalf.

But when Lottsfeldt first presented the idea of establishing Put Alaska First to the Senate Majority PAC more than a year ago, the reception was less than welcoming.

"I decided to go ahead and do Put Alaska First, and the Senate Majority PAC folks, who I work very well with, said, 'No, no, you don't need to do that—just work for us, you can be our Alaska Sherpa, don't set up another group,' " Lottsfeldt said. "I said, 'No, I'm setting up another group, because at the end of the day I'm going to sign off on everything we do because you're from out of state.' "

Entrusting that kind of support to a local-level group is an anomaly for Reid's group. Indeed, Senate Majority PAC has actively persuaded its donors not to give to similar efforts in other states this cycle. Both parties agree that the decision to support Lottsfeldt hinged on his keen knowledge of Alaskan values, as well as a need to spend wisely in a state with a complex population density.

"We don't have as much money as the Koch brothers "... so we have to make sure we're as effective and efficient as possible," said Senate Majority PAC spokesman Ty Matsdorf. "Jim has an unparalleled knowledge of the Alaska political landscape: what plays well there, and what's important to people on the ground."

Lottsfeldt also pointed to Senate Majority PAC cofounder Rebecca Lambe, who is from the state, suggesting she knew how important authenticity was in Alaska.

"You can always tell when the D.C. folks are here; all you have to do is look at their shoes," Lottsfeldt joked. "When outside people come up to run campaigns "... there's just a lot of resentment on behalf of the local people. Whether it's pronouncing Val-deez instead of calling it Val-dez, or making sure that we film every ad in Alaska with real Alaskans "... my job is to make sure this is grounded on Alaska issues."

The authenticity factor has challenged the groups supporting Sullivan. One of the early Americans for Prosperity ads backfired when it was revealed it was filmed in Maryland. Others received criticism from Republicans in the state for focusing too much on national issues, which they say doesn't resonate in Alaska. Meanwhile, Democrats have hammered away at Sullivan on hyper-local topics such as an Alaskan land-use bill that was opposed by hunters and fishers.

That disconnect frustrates Hackney, who has been running campaigns in the state for more than three decades. Hackney is currently advising American Crossroads in the state, but says millions of outside dollars are being thrown away by groups that don't understand Alaska.

"I'm frustrated with groups like Americans for Prosperity coming in and running the same ads they'd run in other states—that kind of thing doesn't fly in Alaska," said Hackney. "Neither does battering away with a million and a half dollars talking about a carbon tax. I know most of the doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs in Alaska and they don't even think about a carbon tax."

So Hackney is taking a page out of Lottsfeldt's book and starting his own super PAC called Alaska's Energy, America's Values, to support Sullivan. He's hoping that if Sullivan is successful in the primary next Tuesday, he can get Republican donors to give him the same trust Democrats have given Lottsfeldt.

"If it comes out like we'd like it to come out, I expect it will be the equivalent of Put Alaska First," said Hackney. "Alaska's a pretty unique state, and having the perspective of somebody on the ground who's been doing campaigns in Alaska for 30-something years is certainly different that somebody looking in from afar and not understanding all of the subtleties. Do I think I know better? Sure."

For his part, Lottsfeldt agreed. "I think Art and I see it very similarly," he said of the two efforts. "Operationally, how I'm working with my allies seems to be far more effective and streamlined than what Art has to do with Karl Rove and his side."

Several Republicans in the state also independently offered that they thought Hackney would do a better job than the outside groups. Anchorage Republican Women's President Jude Eledge criticized the ads she'd seen as misguided in their messages against Begich.

"When you come out of Washington, do you really know what resonates with Alaskans?" she asked. "Because Art does; he has an absolute talent for this."

Hackney says contributions to his PAC from outside groups have been discussed, but he was primarily targeting their donors.

"I've never made a pitch to them directly to put money in, only that funders who give money to them would be well advised to give to an Alaska super PAC," Hackney said.

If he's successful, Hackney wants to not only change the change the message of the attacks on Begich but also direct outside money toward a ground game, where he feels the Democrat and his allies have a real advantage.

"To me it's a frustration of resources not being spent as they could. Everybody is rushing to come in and throw ads on the air and the competitive advantage is more on the Begich side with the ground game that they have meticulously put in place," Hackney said.

Although Lottsfeldt wouldn't speak to the breakdown of Put Alaska First's spending on TV versus the ground game, but early reports on the group's formation indicated that he shared Hackney's views on dedicating his resources that direction.