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 firstname.lastname@example.org