If the first Senate debate of the general election could be boiled down to a few lines from the candidates, it would be these:
Sen. Mark Begich: Regardless of the party I belong to, we’re all friends. I’m working for you. Let’s keep that friendship going.
Dan Sullivan: We need different friends. You might not know me yet, but in the long run, I’ll be better for you than Begich. And besides, I want to repeal ObamaCare.
The debate, only eight days after the primary, was sponsored by the libertarian/tea party group, United for Liberty, and was moderated by Dave Cuddy, from the First National Bank of Alaska family. Cuddy ran against Ted Stevens in the 1996 and the 2008 Republican primaries. However, save for a young man in the audience who, at the end of the night started screaming about saving babies, the crowd seemed relatively tea-party free. If anything, Begich supporters dominated.
Who won? It depends on whether or not you’re inclined to want to continue on with the relationship with Begich. And if you were, just a little bit even, I’d have to say that on Tuesday night, Begich gave you a reason to hang in there, which is really probably all he had to do. He was open. He was relaxed. He spoke conversationally. He knew his stuff, and would probably still be listing off all the things he’s done in the Senate in the past five years had he been allowed. NPR-A. Drilling in the Arctic. F-16s and F-35s. CD-5. Health clinics. Veterans’ benefits, to name a few.
If you’re actively looking for reasons to break with Begich, then Sullivan, who gave his best debate performance of the season, gave assurance that he, too, could be a good, solid friend one day, which is probably all he had to do at the debate. He doesn’t have the laundry list of accomplishments on his side, but he has the underlying red-state values, and though he’s new to all of this, he can articulate those values well. His best weapons: Obama and Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, both of whose names he repeatedly invoked.
There were questions of policy: ObamaCare, the debt, immigration, defense. Begich gave about as good of a defense on his vote for ObamaCare as any I’ve heard. Before the law was passed, 34 percent of Alaskans had been denied insurance on the private market, he said. (Full disclosure: I was one of those people.) Before the law was passed, women were being charged more because they were women. (Full disclosure: I am one of those people.) Before the law was passed, being pregnant was a preexisting condition. Before the law was passed, insurance companies could charge as much as they pleased, and they did so.
On to immigration: Begich said that he voted for comprehensive immigration reform, and that the bill is stuck in the House. Sullivan’s answer drew some of the biggest applause of the night. He said that “comprehensive” immigration reform is stuck in the House because the public doesn’t want comprehensive immigration reform, just like it didn’t want comprehensive health care reform. He said that he would advocate a piecemeal approach.
The debt? Sullivan said it’s crippling the country. Begich said that it’s decreasing, and besides, Republican were the ones who drove it up in the first place.
It went back and forth like that for most of the night—with some trivia thrown in. Begich didn’t know that the second largest freshwater lake in the country was Lake Iliamna, but Sullivan didn’t know where the Salty Dawg was.
Ultimately, the answers that they gave tonight were probably less important than the general impression they left. Most of those on the right are going to vote for Sullivan, and most on the left are going to vote for Begich. In this respect, the math is on Sullivan’s side. Alaska is, after all, a state that votes mostly red. So the real battle is going to come down to the middle, people who look at issues individually, and see people as more than labels and what their respective parties represent.
Many of those in the middle have an ongoing relationship with Begich. Begich knows this to his core, and if anything is going to get him reelected, it’s that.
If Sullivan stands a chance, he’s got to first understand that relationship, and then give the public a really good reason to break with it. Tonight, he laid the groundwork for that strategy.
Contact Amanda Coyne at firstname.lastname@example.org