ANCHORAGE — A big part of being an Alaskan is harboring a suspicion of all things Lower 48. It’s an inclination that runs so deep Alaskans have a proper noun to describe everywhere else: Outside.
So, naturally, there is quite a bit of alarm here over the state’s newest political distinction.
In no other state have so many ads about a Senate race run so far; in no place else has more money been spent to book commercial time through Election Day. More than $20 million worth of commercials have been reserved, the bulk of the money coming from Washington, D.C.-based outfits such as Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, which wants to elect a Republican, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which is defending Sen. Mark Begich, one of the most targeted first-term Democrats.
Five months before the November election, that sum would be extraordinary in any state. It is all the more staggering considering it will be spent to reach only about 490,000 registered voters.
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When super PAC money overwhelmed many other areas of the country, Alaska managed to remain relatively untouched. Its three electoral votes are predictably Republican in presidential elections. Its sole House seat has been in the same hands since 1973. And its last Senate election was in 2010, before super PACs became supersized.
But today Alaska is home to one of the handful of closely contested races that will determine whether Republicans or Democrats control the Senate next year, and outside resources are tumbling in. The Republican National Committee has opened three offices, its earliest presence in Alaska ever. Its young workers, many of whom had never set foot in the state before, are growing beards and learning to roll with ribbing — You’re a flatlander, aren’t you? — from locals who are not fooled. Democrats in Washington, D.C., are funding a local super PAC, but you would not know it from the group’s inconspicuous name, Put Alaska First.
In a race that has been fought over questions of which candidate is the most grizzled and authentic Alaskan — Is that candidate’s Carhartt hunting jacket too creased and unused-looking? — such a heavy presence of outside groups is creating an uncomfortable and discordant dynamic.
“It’s not Karl Rove’s seat. It’s not Harry Reid’s seat. It’s our seat,” said Mead Treadwell, the lieutenant governor and one of three Republicans in the Aug. 19 primary that will decide who runs against Begich.
Candidates are trying to dissociate themselves from these outside forces even as they benefit from them. And they are rushing to condemn their opponents as pawns of Washington, D.C., interests.
“He’s not one of us,” says a new ad that attacks Dan Sullivan, the Republican candidate who has attracted the most support from groups such as American Crossroads and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The Democratic group financing this and other ads against Sullivan, Senate Majority PAC, is trying to do so with no East Coast fingerprints. Instead of working under its own name, Senate Majority PAC has provided almost all of the funding for Put Alaska First, giving the group nearly $700,000 of the roughly $800,000 it had raised through March 31.
Political ads are ubiquitous here already. They have run on Alaska airwaves nearly 20,000 times since early last year, according to Kantar Media, a monitoring and research firm. That is more than in North Carolina (18,000), Arkansas (13,000) and Louisiana (12,000), all of which are conservative states where Republicans believe they can pick off Democratic incumbents.
Begich tried to convey his Alaska ruggedness in an ad by riding a snowmobile above the Arctic Circle. The text on the screen noted the temperature was 20 degrees below zero.
Sullivan, an assistant secretary of state under Condoleezza Rice who until last year served as Alaska’s commissioner of natural resources and was Gov. Sarah Palin’s attorney general, accused Begich of hypocrisy for condemning outside PACs while benefiting from them himself.
“It’s almost like he’s laundering Harry Reid’s money into Alaska,” Sullivan told a group of hunters gathered at a Denny’s in Fairbanks recently. Sullivan emphasized his Alaska roots, telling the group how he and his wife, who is part of a prominent Alaska Native family, were married nearby. “I’m not an Alaskan. She’s not an Alaskan. Really?”
Referring to the billionaire Republican donors Charles and David Koch, Sullivan continued: “They’re saying I’m getting money from the Koch brothers. The only guy in this election who’s gotten money from the Koch brothers is Mark Begich.” (A political committee for Koch Industries donated $5,000 to a Begich-affiliated PAC in 2010.)
In an interview, Begich hit back: “Just because people give me money, Dan, doesn’t mean they control me.”
Because Sullivan was born in Ohio and lived in Maryland while working for the State Department, critics have accused him of having superficial ties to Alaska. Some have even snickered that the Carhartt jacket he wears in an ad looks too new and therefore phony.
Asked in an interview whether he wanted the support of Koch-backed groups such as Americans for Prosperity and American Energy Alliance, which have been running ads against Begich, Sullivan paused for 25 seconds and said he hoped to bring all voters together. “I want to unite Alaskans,” he said.
The Koch name is a loaded one in some parts of Alaska. Koch Industries closed an oil refinery near Fairbanks this year. Walk through a parking lot, and it is possible to see stickers saying: “Koch Brothers Go Home.”
A wild card
The race’s biggest wild card is Joe Miller, the tea-party favorite who rose to national prominence in 2010 when he beat Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the Republican primary only to lose to her in the general election as she ran a write-in candidacy. To try to prove the depth of his Alaska roots, he said at a recent debate: “I hate Washington, D.C.,” and vowed not to “buy some little house and get comfy” if elected.
Many Republicans said they were concerned Miller could run as a third-party candidate in November if he lost the Republican primary, which would split the conservative vote and almost certainly lead to the re-election of Begich.
“I’m not about splitting the conservative vote at all,” Miller said in an interview, sidestepping a question about his general-election plans. “I’m about unifying the conservative base. That’s the only way that we can have victory.”
Treadwell, the lieutenant governor, has said he has jars of mayonnaise in his refrigerator that have been there longer than Sullivan has been in Alaska. In an interview, he seemed annoyed Sullivan had already sewn up support from groups such as American Crossroads and the Chamber of Commerce. “I helped introduce him to Sarah Palin,” Treadwell said.
“The idea, the audacity, the arrogance that you can raise all your money with Karl Rove and a family company in Ohio and purport to be Alaska’s senator,” he added, referring to donations from Sullivan’s family, “I don’t think flies with Alaskans.”
Alaska, with its small and far-flung population, is difficult to poll, making races unpredictable. Complicating matters for pollsters, the mayor of Anchorage is also named Dan Sullivan and is running for lieutenant governor.
Democrats have been working hard to give Begich an edge. There will be two measures on the ballot in November that could bolster Democratic turnout: one to raise the state’s minimum wage and the other to legalize marijuana for recreational use.
After once putting him at the top of their most-endangered list, Democrats recently moved Begich down into safer territory.