The Unlikely Battleground for Reproductive Rights: Alaska

On the heels of Alaska's Senate primary, Planned Parenthood's political arm has launched its largest digital ad buy of the cycle.

When Alaska residents check the results of Tuesday night's Republican primary, one Democratic group will already be out ahead of the message for the general election.

It's part of Democrats' unconventional gamble to put women's issues front and center in Alaska, a state with the highest percentage of men in the country and with nearly twice as many registered Republicans as Democrats. In a year when any race could hand control of the Senate to Republicans, the outcome in Alaska could be crucial.

To wit: On Wednesday morning, Planned Parenthood Action Fund will launch a spate of digital ads attacking Dan Sullivan, the state's former attorney general and newly anointed Republican Senate nominee, for his record on women's health. The ads are part of a $65,000 push aimed at educating Alaskans about Sullivan's positions on abortion, contraception, and violence against women, while contrasting them with those of Democratic Sen. Mark Begich.

"Dan Sullivan has been slippery on some of his positions," Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood's political arm, told National Journal, "so we want to make sure that when people are looking at this race ... they have the information readily available from somebody they trust to give it to them."

The 2012 elections proved that the "war on women" was a winning tactic. While 55 percent of women voted for Barack Obama, just 44 percent went for Mitt Romney, according to exit polls. Now, Democrats are pushing the envelope in places like Alaska.

The push comes just a week after Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards, operating separately from the group's independent expenditure arm, traveled to Alaska to help support Begich in his efforts to rally the women's vote.

While Begich breaks with most Democrats on energy and gun control, his views on women's health issues—from abortion rights and access to birth control to violence against women—provide him with a clear way to differentiate himself from his Republican opponent.

Sullivan has said he personally opposes abortion, even in cases of rape, incest, or when the woman's life is at risk, although suggested he would not support laws prohibiting it. Sullivan has also dodged questions on whether he would support a federal personhood bill and the Violence Against Women Act. He supports the Hobby Lobby decision and legislation that would cut off funding to Planned Parenthood. (The state has five clinics, three of which provide abortion services.)


For months, Begich has been laying the groundwork to outline the contrast. In April he aired radio ads attacking Sullivan for believing it's "OK for the government to intrude in our personal health care decisions." In another video ad, he described the Republican field's positions on women's health as "truly frightening."

Sullivan may be easier to paint as an extremist after his primary with tea-party insurgent Joe Miller, who won the 2010 Republican Senate nomination in an upset over Sen. Lisa Murkowski. On Tuesday, the state's Democratic Party pushed out a statement attacking Sullivan for shifting his position on abortion in order to be competitive with Miller in the primary. In a last-minute campaign robo-call, state Dems said in their blast, Sullivan told tea-party primary voters he believes life begins at conception when he'd previously said all abortions should be illegal except in cases of rape and incest.

From an email sent Tuesday by Zach Fields, communications director for the Alaska Democrats: "Dan Sullivan has joined Joe Miller and Mead Treadwell in claiming that 'life begins at conception,' endorsing a radical concept that would criminalize abortion AND criminalize certain forms of contraception," the message reads. "Sullivan's endorsement of 'life at conception' is a reversal of his previous opposition to the Life at Conception Act."

Planned Parenthood's new ad campaign will go live at 7 a.m. Alaska time (11 a.m. EST) on a host of Alaskan news sites, including the Juneau Empire, Alaska Dispatch, and Anchorage Daily News. Lightly Xed-out images of Sullivan's face will feature several variations on this message: "Behind Dan Sullivan's smile is a scary reality for Alaska women. Dan Sullivan would let the government control what you do with your body."

The new campaign marks the largest ad buy Planned Parenthood has done this election cycle, and the group plans to keep it going. A national fundraising appeal will go out later this week, underscoring the importance of the race.