Sullivan defeats Begich to win the U.S. Senate race. Here’s why.

With only 15,000 or so ballots left to be counted, and GOP Senate candidate Dan Sullivan maintaining an insurmountable lead over U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, the Associated Press called the race for Sullivan on Tuesday night, a week after Election Day. As of the last count, Sullivan was about 8,000 votes ahead of Begich, giving him a 3.21 percent lead: 48.58 to 45.37 percent. Begich hasn’t yet conceded, but the race is over and Alaska will now be represented by an all Republican delegation.

About $60 million was spent on about 264,000 votes, making it the most expensive race and certainly one of the most hard-fought races in the state’s history. It was a race that pitted a political neophyte against Alaska’s best politician. It was a race that pitted nearly every interest group imaginable against one another. But mostly, it was a race that tested Alaska’s ideological makeup. Begich is a Democrat, but he’s a red state Democrat, and often talked the language of conservatives, particularly on the stump. However, all that talk, all the vigorous campaigning, couldn’t change the fact that this is a conservative state, and the Democratic Party’s platform is simply not a platform that works for many Alaskans,

Most of us knew this, but many of us, particularly in the media, thought that Begich’s and the Democratic Party’s ground game in Alaska might make up the difference. Local and national reporters flew to rural Alaska and were enamored with Begich’s operations in villages where Begich had field offices open and volunteers roamed the dirt roads.

However, as many of us were looking at rural Alaska, the Republicans were also hard at work. Sullivan’s campaign, and the RNC, made a decision to allow Begich to have those headlines, while they quietly got their troops in order to work the more urban and more Republican-leaning areas of the state. All the media attention from the Begich campaign actually helped Sullivan. It allowed Sullivan’s campaign to compare its progress.

“When we read that Begich’s campaign knocked on 50,000 doors, we knew that we were in a good spot because we had knocked on 70,000,” Ben Sparks, Sullivan’s campaign manger said. Indeed, an internal memo said that the RNC and the Alaska Republican Party knocked on 375,205 doors, and made 726,983 live phone calls.

Also, all the media attention made the RNC just nervous enough that it continued to spend in Alaska, even though the internal polls consistently showed Sullivan ahead.

The Republican effort was helped by a good, solid candidate, with impeccable Republican credentials. That Sullivan wasn’t from Alaska was used against him. However, in the end, it probably ended up working to his advantage. It’s a small state. It’s easy to make enemies here. Sullivan hasn’t done that. He hasn’t had the chance. He was a clean slate which left little for Begich’s campaign to attack. They tried. They started during the primary and they continued non-stop, and some of it got very nasty, which probably hurt Begich more than anything, There just wasn’t enough there to stick, and that Begich tried so hard fit into beneath-the-surface questions about Begich. Namely, at what lengths and how low would Begich go to get reelected? That he would try to capitalize, unfairly, on a horrendous rape and murder, was particularly eye-opening to some, and many campaign watchers said that’s were Begich’s campaign got rattled and began to flounder.

In contrast, what Alaskans saw of Sullivan was that he’s a likable guy, stayed out of the mud, and ran a good, disciplined campaign. It wasn’t the most exciting campaign—the relentless attacks against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Obama—were getting thread worn by the end. And although he appeared wooden, particularly at first, he didn’t make any big gaffes or big mistakes, which is hard to do for a first-time candidate with Democratic operatives tracking and recording your every move and every speech.

But what mattered most is the numbers. There are simply more Republicans and right-leaning independents than there are Democrats, whose numbers are actually declining.

However, if there was anybody who could cut through the red streak this time around it would be Begich. Begich, who began working the game of Alaska politics when he was a teenager, has Alaska has it in his blood. In fact, it’s probably fair to say that the state has never seen a better retail politician. He’ll shake hands with anybody. He’ll talk to any group, answer to any charge. Begich shook every hand that was extended and did a good job of grabbing those that weren’t. He worked tirelessly.

But a Democrat, no matter how much like a Republican they act, had little chance of winning this seat this time around particularly given how paralyzed the Senate had become under Democratic leadership.

Anchorage-based Jim Lottsfeldt, who ran the pro-Begich super-PAC Put Alaska First and who is close to Begich, doesn’t see anything the campaign could have done differently.

“Dan Sullivan is extremely likable,” Lottsfeldt said. “And he stayed in the lane and the current carried him forward.”

Lottsfeldt and others are already talking about Begich making a run in 2016 against Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who may be the most popular politician in Alaska, but who will likely have a tough time in a Republican primary.

Contact Amanda Coyne at


21 thoughts on “Sullivan defeats Begich to win the U.S. Senate race. Here’s why.

  1. Joe Barnard

    Run Mark run. Lisa only won her write in campaign because she was a camoflaged republican. There will be plenty of time to be thoroughly sick of the mitch mcconnell senate by then, especially if oil prices stay low and nut jobs like Cruz and Rubio are at full volume.

  2. Anonymous

    Begich as “Alaska’s best politician”? He lost twice for Mayor and only won when Mystrom jumped in against Wuerch and split the conservative vote. He beats Stevens after a flawed federal conviction and can’t even hold the seat as an incumbent. Let’s not confuse being good with being lucky.

  3. Miz

    “…on EPA overreach, Obamacare, gun rights, amnesty, spending, Mark Begich is with Obama and I’m with you … I’m on Alaska’s side.”

    That’s why Sullivan won.

  4. Straitlaced Radical

    Not sure his ego will allow him to truly concede. I predict he’ll try to spin it into something else, if he says much at all.

  5. Amanda Post author

    @Anony. I don’t know how you can say they let Sullivan off on HB 77. They went after him repeatedly over HB77. In fact, that appeared to be most of Put Alaska First’s charge, which produced, I’d argue, the best political ads of the cycle on the subject.

  6. Anonymous

    Elimination of the public comment period and putting permitting decisions in the hands of an appointed, not elected, DNR commissioner.

    If this does not reek of crony capitalism, of corporate insiders manipulating the political process I don’t know what does. This is the state that is home to the Corrupt Bastards Club, remember? Even mild “healthy skepticism” just bristles at the notion of giving an appointed official a chance to completely undermine the permitting process- in the name of the all-holy “deregulation.”

    The reason there is such a backlog, the reason it takes so long to permit things if we have to be careful. We have to protect our natural resources in this state. We have fish and game in this state that are literally the gift that keeps on giving. A resource that is fundamentally renewable and critical to so many people for subsistence and employment. There is no way you can possibly believe HB77 would NOT jeopardize that.

    Trusting the judgement of an appointed stiff over the regional knowledge of locals, over the scientific process, is an abomination. The companies that make large proposals have unimaginable resources with which to pitch the DNR commissioner and get him to believe whatever they want. They could just say “this is safe, we’re going to make it safe, do it safely” and then when the shit hits the fan, where would the accountability lie?

    It might be hard to view HB77 as anything other than the division between liberal and conservative ideology, but it wasn’t. I repeat that it was roundly smacked down by a Republican Senate- even they could see that this bill was repugnant. Sullivan got to stand by that as simple deregulation and Begich’s campaign let him off the hook for it because of the idiotic hunting and fishing argument.

    [They argued that when the DNR commissioner would use his authority under HB77 to approve a project, the literal site of the project would become off limits to hunting and fishing- the literal footprint of the property. They were trying to stretch to appeal to sportsmen in this state rather than making the effort to educate people who weren’t political insiders.]

  7. Greg Q

    “But a Democrat, no matter how much like a Republican they act”

    That Democrat provided the 60th vote for ObamaCare. Not a very Republican thing to do,.

  8. joe blow

    It is a credit to Mark Begich that he ran as close as he did. He proved himself to be a much more capable candidate than he previously showed. But this is as far as he goes. If he couldn’t beat Sullivan, a nice guy with no name recognition and not much crackle, Begich would have no chance against Lisa and there’s no way he’d take a demotion to US House. No, he’ll move on to his next career, K Street lobbyist.

  9. Garand Fellow

    Here at this house we went door to door for the Sullivan campaign, among others. I believe that the Begich campaign was the better campaign but not by all that much. Sullivan was by far the better candidate however. The outcome of this race shows the system is still working, and that is great for Alaskans and for democracy.

    In a long campaign it’s difficult for a candidate to be on both sides of important issues. Begich tried that on gun rights and he failed. He never learned the issue and he never answered for the times he sided with the gun confiscation lobby. As with his ad showing him riding a snow machine he thought (or his campaign manager thought) that showing him shooting a shotgun was a sufficient statement about gun rights. Sullivan sent out a mailer that said that the Second Amendment supports all our other rights, and that is one of several statements anyone can make that shows they get it about guns.

    In this state a Democratic candidate for a DC job has to do much more than Begich did to distance himself from Obama. As a Democratic candidate he should have attacked the personality even more than he attacked the person in office. He could have found hundreds of coded language remarks and jokes on the Internet that would have resonated with Alaskans. After all, Obama went to a church where the preacher damned America yet Obama kept attending and said nothing to the preacher; so Begich, being in the same party, is associated with that unless he pushes back against Obama emphatically and in a way that makes the national news. Begich has to shock MSNBC with his Obama remarks in order to satisfy patriotic Alaskans and he did nothing of the sort.

    I’ve gone on too long. It was an interesting race. Begich had tentacles that impacted many other 2014 races. I don’t expect to see anything like it in Alaska again for quite a while.

  10. Brad

    Julie will be whispering in his ear for the next six years and that is great for Alaska and Alaska Natives… What a great win for all Alaskans!

  11. Mae

    Alaskans just lost a senate seat if L48 Dan garnered a majority of the votes.
    I’m sure Ohio is quite happy.

    I’ve saved all the mailings from each campaign and I have to say Amanda, the Pro Sullivan pile is way bigger with vile anti Begich flyers.
    L48 Dan didn’t gravel in the mud, because he didn’t say a whole lot.
    No different than when PARNELL ran the last time.

    I tire of those republicans who won’t work or play with others.
    It is why I left the Republican Party. It was like bipartisan efforts were to be shamed and torchere will occur if your caught working together.

    I’m glad the election is over. It felt like a national hate festival on my door step. Big money, big hate.

  12. the final truth

    Begich didn’t lose this race- his campaign did.

    They took a winnable race and steered it right into the rocks with their overzealousness. Allow me to explain.

    HB77 was a deplorable disgrace of a bill, struck down by a Republican Senate- Sullivan’s very own party. It was a horrible window into the truth that Sullivan will put anything at risk in the name of more business. Instead of attacking him, rightly, for this terrifying bill, the Begich camp went after “hunting and fishing rights” on an absurd stretch. They couldn’t be satisfied with it being an awful, scary bill… they had to bite off more than they could chew and it turned a strength into a weakness.

    With the now infamous Jerry Active ad, the Begich campaign did the same thing. Sullivan trots around touting his “spearheading” (tone deaf word choice) the Choose Respect campaign. What has that annual pageantry accomplished? Nothing. The Begich campaign could’ve rightfully gone after Sullivan for his failure to improve, in any measurable way, domestic violence or sexual assault in the state. It’s a valid criticism. Instead they created a laughingstock of an ad, and instead of addressing the error in an authoritative and dignified way, they doubled and tripled down. Again, this turned a valid criticism into a weakness by going beyond the bounds ANY rational person should’ve seen.

    When proposition 2 got bumped to the general election instead of the primary, many thought this was a win for Begich. It wasn’t. Why? Because he was spineless and refused to stand with 52% of the voting block. Why? I assume because of bad polling, bad strategic advice. By failing to support the measure Begich failed to connect with the majority of the voters in this state.

    Where else did Begich shoe miserably miscalculated weakness? Prop 1 in August. He stood sheepishly on the sideline while Wielechowski was out debating his ass off. While everyday Alaskans made signs and waved them in the face of a disgusting 17 million dollar onslaught by Huge Oil, Begich did nothing. His active presence in that debate may have fired up the base and got a victory for the repeal side. Instead he played political games and Sullivan was right to say he didn’t show leadership.

    It’s insanely sad to see this Senate race go to Sullivan, not because of who he is, but because of who will whisper into his ears for the next six years. He will do the bidding of those who bought his way into office.

    Sullivan ran a campaign that showed outright contempt for the public while Begich worked retail politics in overdrive. Begich made himself available nonstop. Sullivan hid from the public eye. He shirked every campaign tradition he could, with utter impunity. He chose to sit back and let the ads do the talking. It shouldn’t have worked.

    When Sullivan criticized the Affordable Care Act he often brought up Pelosi’s famous comment “we have to pass it to find out what’s in it.” Sadly, the Alaskan people had to elect Dan Sullivan to find out what’s in him. They will get to watch for six years as he consistently chooses corporate interests over state interests. They will get to see what business-at-all-costs does to our home. We will find out the specifics that fill in the blanks of the tired rhetoric Sullivan ran on.

    As the smoke finally clears it seems to me that it wasn’t Sullivan who beat Begich so much as it was Sullivan’s campaign who beat Begich’s campaign- or rather Begich’s campaign who beat themselves.

  13. D. Edgren

    Very nice and insightful piece, especially considering that it was wrapped up between 11:00 p.m. or so and midnight.

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