Sen. Mark Begich has worked harder than just about any other endangered red-state Democrat to separate himself from an unpopular president this cycle. Distancing himself from the president's Cabinet, however, is another story.
When Alaska's junior senator was asked early this spring whether President Obama would be welcome on the trail for his reelection bid, the first-term Democrat gave an emphatic no, reminding his interviewer than he won his current seat in a year the president lost the state by more than 20 points.
"I don't need him campaigning for me—I need him changing some of his policies," Begich said in an interview after the State of the Union address. It's a message he's repeated in multiple campaign ads, knocking the administration on everything from Environmental Protection Agency regulations to failures by the Veterans Affairs Department.
But in the past several months, no fewer than five members of Obama's Cabinet have been out to Alaska. Newly installed Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro visited this week, touring Anchorage's Mountain View neighborhood with Begich. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez visited in July, stopping along the way to help Begich shore up support with his union backers. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz came up mid-August for a roundtable on Alaska's mega-gas line project, as did Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, both of whom also attended fundraisers for the Democrat while there.
In any other state, parading through representatives of the unpopular White House during a razor-close reelection bid would be instant fodder for opposition ads. But in Alaska, the last friendly state for pork-barrel spending, Democrats can welcome members of the Cabinet with open arms, and Republicans are left with little room to argue.
"Mark Begich wants Obama's help, but he can't let Alaskans to know that," said Thomas Reiker, a spokesman for Begich's Republican opponent, Dan Sullivan. "That's why he is using Obama foot soldiers under the guise of 'official duties' to try and get a campaign boost while the taxpayer foots the bill."
But Sullivan's campaign did not protest the $7 million in federal grants for Alaska housing and public works that came with Castro's visit—a move that elsewhere may have been condemned as excessive government spending. That's because Alaska's long history of relying on federal funds complicates such an argument up there.
"Begich has made clear that he wants to bring as many people to Alaska as possible," Begich campaign spokesman Max Croes said of the visits. "His goal is to make sure that people in Washington have an understanding of Alaska's unique needs so that he can better make the case to them about the reasons Alaska needs federal funding."
Croes pointed to a new squadrons of F-35 airplanes headed to Fairbanks as just one example of Begich's recent accomplishments based on show-and-tell diplomacy. He brushed off the idea of administration visits having anything to do with an election year, but said accomplishments like the housing grants definitely play up Begich's strengths.
"The results that Begich is able to deliver by making that case plays very well with Alaskans," Croes said. "Folks are well aware of the important role that federal programs play here, and they're certainly in tune with the fact that Alaska is still owed its fair share."
Begich's Republican predecessor, the late Sen. Ted Stevens, was known best for the earmarks he secured for projects like airports, bridges, and sustainable fisheries. Croes pointed out that more often than not, Begich works alongside Republican Sen. Lisa Murkoski and Rep. Don Young to protect government services like the postal service and rural air transportation.
But for all of the goodwill toward Obama's Cabinet, the president himself, who has volunteered to help any Senate Democrat who asks, is still unlikely to be seen in Alaska before Nov. 5. Asked whether Obama's offer to visit would be another good opportunity for Begich to make his pitch for Alaska projects and programs, Croes pointed to the senator's comments after the State of the Union, asserting Begich would prefer the president spend his time revisiting some of his policies.
Ironically, Begich invited the president up for just such a visit in that interview, suggesting, "If he wants to come up there and learn about Alaska, bring it on."