On his campaign Facebook page, Mark Begich has characterized himself “an independent voice for Alaska.” That seems more like a strategy pulled from Gov. Bill Walker’s 2014 playbook that a genuine description of his political views.
What’s different is Walker’s claim was real. More than a year before the election he’d decided to challenge a Republican incumbent by running as an independent. Begich is Democrat who, in his one term in the U.S. Senate, rarely broke ranks with party leaders.
That’s not the only theme he’s borrowing from Walker’s successful campaign. Four years ago, the Walker/Mallott signs read “Alaska First. It’s Time.” It was in reference to the first ever non-partisan ticket forged with the Democratic party nominee, an agreement that built on the independent label and helped convince many Alaskans he’d put our interests ahead of everything else.
Now, it appears Begich is going to run with the slogan the “time is now.” That’s the caption on the banner displayed at his campaign’s website. Time for what he’s not saying. A full month after declaring his candidacy, the only statement on it is “check back later for more information!”
But even if Begich had clearly articulated his views, I’d still among the progressives backing Walker.
In a best-case scenario for Begich, he’d win a three-way race with just under 40 percent of the vote. A few Democrats might ride his short coattails into office, but not nearly enough to wrestle control of the Senate from Republicans. He’d be given the wheel of the ship without a voter mandate and a legislature that would firmly block any attempt to steer the state toward more liberal waters.
In other words, it’ll be much harder for Begich to govern effectively than it’s been for Walker during the past four years. Only an especially gifted politician would think otherwise. And the former mayor of Anchorage and one-term U.S. Senator has little on his resume suggesting he’s in that class.
The brightest moment in Begich’ s political career came while serving on the Anchorage Assembly in 1997. His colleagues across the state voted him Alaska’s top elected municipal official.
Three years later he rode that distinction into the mayor’s race where, in a field of 10 candidates, he won 40 percent of the vote, twice as many as his nearest competitor. But it wasn’t enough to avoid a runoff. And the additional 7 percent Begich picked up in the special election left him five points behind the winner.
That was closer than his first run for mayor when he finished a close second in the regular election but got trounced in the runoff. In both cases, Begich’s initial success is attributable to being a lonely voice from the left among a broad spectrum of conservatives. But he didn’t compete as well in head-to-head races.
When Begich was finally elected mayor in 2003, the bar for winning the regular election had been lowered to 45 percent. And he squeaked past that margin by a mere 11 votes.
Begich proved his worth to voters that first term. It earned him a landslide win in 2006. And two years later when U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens ran into legal troubles, national Democrats came looking for a recognizable party figure to challenge him.
In seven bids for re-election, Sen. Ted Stevens had beaten every challenger by at least 2 to 1. But that summer he’d been indicted for corruption and convicted just a week before the election. And still Begich only won by a single percentage point.
His first two years in Congress were marked by President Obama’s huge stimulus bill and the Affordable Care Act, both of which became instant eye sores in red states like Alaska. In one of 10 opinion polls after that, Begich’s statewide approval rating approached 50 percent. In the rest it hovered in the low 40s.
Perhaps such numbers don’t bother Begich because the bubble of his friends and political acquaintances speaks louder than his history. Or it’s the best statewide Democratic candidates can do without a campaign footnoted by the self-destruction of the Republican challenger. Either way, an underwhelming candidate unpersuasively trying to sound independent adds up to a lost cause even if he wins.
• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector. He contributes a weekly “My Turn” to the Juneau Empire. My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire.