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.
Many Democrats consider Begich, along with Senator Mark Pryor in Arkansas, to be running the best campaign of any Democratic incumbent up for reelection.
"Begich is someone who has run for office a dozen times and learned how to run and how to run effectively, and that's his asset," said Mark Hellenthal, a Republican strategist based in Anchorage. "He lives and breathes politics. He's got a team that's tried and true, they've gone through many elections with him. He would be a good campaign manager if he wasn't the candidate."
Hellenthal added, "None of those statements are true of Sullivan."
Sullivan has held only two state offices—Alaska's attorney general and later the Department of Natural Resources commissioner—and both came to the first-time candidate by gubernatorial appointment. That means the Ohio native wasn't able to establish authenticity as an Alaskan in previous campaign, and attacks from both parties on that issue in part explain why Sullivan struggled to win his GOP primary despite the backing of behemoths like the conservative Club for Growth and the Karl Rove-backed American Crossroads. Sullivan won his primary, but with nearly all of the vote counted when the Associated Press called the race, Sullivan barely had more than 40 percent of the vote despite running against a pair of underfunded and lightly regarded opponents.
Questioning Sullivan's commitment to the state is a tack taken relentlessly by Democrats, who have spent millions of dollars on TV raising the issue with voters.
"Dan Sullivan, born and raised in Ohio, and recent owner of a million-dollar Maryland home,"began one ad from the group Put Alaska First, a Begich-allied super PAC that gets the overwhelming majority of its money from Democrats' main Senate outside group, Senate Majority PAC.
The attacks took their toll on Sullivan: Alaska is one of the few Senate battlegrounds in which Republicans don't hold an overwhelming spending advantage over Democrats. And consequently, the criticism lobbed at Sullivan went unanswered for weeks.
"You can't control what you can't control," said Hackney, who runs the pro-Sullivan Alaska's Energy/America's Values super PAC and advises Crossroads in the state. "Somebody should have spent the money and didn't."
It's hard to tell, empirically, where the race stands. Polling is notoriously difficult in Alaska, especially among the far-flung rural voters who could make or break the eventual victor, and what few surveys have been done are largely seen as unreliable. But as Senate races across the country tighten, strategists from both parties agree that Begich has maintained a distinct advantage that Republicans now have just over two months to try to undo. As people from the state are fond of saying, Alaska is just different—at least for now.