ANCHORAGE — The winner of Alaska’s Republican Senate primary, Dan Sullivan, successfully turned back tea party opposition during an at-times contentious 10-month race. Next up, Democratic Sen. Mark Begich, who has tagged Sullivan as an outsider in a state where relationships and roots matter.
A former natural resources commissioner and attorney general for Alaska, Sullivan is a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps reserves who, around this time last year, was deployed overseas in Afghanistan. His resume could appeal to the influential bloc of military personnel in the state, which has a high population of veterans.
He was born and raised in a Cleveland suburb and graduated from Harvard and Georgetown universities. He moved to Alaska in the 1990s before leaving in 2002 for a White House fellowship. He later worked as an assistant secretary of state in President George W. Bush’s administration, and lived in Maryland while working on the East Coast. He returned to the state in 2009.
“I love Alaska. This is my home,” Sullivan says in an ad that features his wife, Julie, who is from Alaska.
Begich, born and raised in Alaska and a former Anchorage mayor whose father was a congressman for the state, has adopted a pithy and not-so-subtle campaign motto as a counter to his Republican opponent: “True Alaska.”
Alaska Republicans on Tuesday nominated Sullivan with 40 percent of the vote with 98 percent of precincts reporting, completing the GOP establishment’s rout of tea party challengers in states critical to the battle for Senate control in November. The GOP needs to gain six seats to topple the Democratic majority, and conservative Alaska is one of the most competitive races in the country.
Sullivan, suffering from laryngitis, was unable to do the victor’s round of TV appearances on Wednesday. In an interview often kept at a whisper, he said he left everything he had on the primary field — voice included — but was ready to build off his grassroots network of volunteers and mount a vigorous challenge.
Key to victory, Sullivan said, is unity within the Republican Party, which has vowed to come together in the cause of defeating Begich. Equally important, he said, is building a broad-based coalition of support and focusing on big issues affecting Alaska and the economy, including federal overreach and the need for greater domestic energy production. He plans to emphasize his experience on national security and international affairs.
Sullivan has dismissed the attacks on his residency, saying he was serving his country while away. “If these guys want to keep focusing on small ball, which has been their M.O., I think most Alaskans recognize what they’re trying to do” — deflect attention from a “failed record” in Washington, he said.
Without significant primary competition, Begich had a head start on Sullivan and used that time to play-up his Alaska roots and to cast himself as an independent voice in Washington. He opened campaign offices in far-flung locales. And in an oft-run campaign ad, he rode a snowmachine in the Arctic and spoke about fighting President Barack Obama’s administration to help secure offshore drilling permits.
Begich captured his first term against Republican Sen. Ted Stevens in 2008, a campaign in which Stevens defended himself against federal corruption charges and a jury found him guilty of lying on financial disclosure forms about gifts days before the election. Begich won, but a judge later dismissed the case, citing prosecutorial misconduct, and some voters felt cheated.
Sullivan brings to the contest a fundraising prowess that has rivaled Begich’s. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appeared in an American Crossroads ad endorsing him in the primary fight. The Karl Rove-affiliated group and a related organization, Crossroads GPS, have reserved millions of dollars of air time through Election Day.
Also backing Sullivan are the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the anti-tax Club for Growth, which created headaches for the establishment this election cycle by backing right-flank candidates against incumbents. After Sullivan’s win, Club for Growth President Chris Chocola called Sullivan “a pro-growth conservative” and said “voters in Alaska want to send a message to President Obama, and they’ll do it by electing taxpayer hero Dan Sullivan in November.”
For months, Democrats have tried to paint Sullivan as a carpetbagger and have noted he has used different years to denote his residency on fishing licenses and other materials. Put Alaska First, a pro-Begich super PAC, spent $4 million on ads describing Sullivan as an outsider who can’t be trusted and has reserved another $4 million in airtime for the general election.
Shortly after the primary results, Democrats made clear that they weren’t about to let the issue die. A statement from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee after Sullivan’s win called him an outsider.
But Begich, at a campaign event Wednesday, said he would also make distinctions with Sullivan on issues like same-sex marriage, abortion and increasing the minimum wage.
While he has decried the influence of outside groups — even using it in campaign fundraising appeals — he resisted revisiting the type of pledge Sullivan proposed earlier in the campaign as a way to help limit TV and radio buys by third-party groups. Begich said he wants to focus on a permanent solution to require more disclosure by some of these groups rather than focus on just one campaign.
He also made clear that he would not let attacks on him go unanswered.