To the surprise of nearly no one, the Republican nomination for U.S. senator from Alaska was won by Dan Sullivan, former state commissioner of natural resources. No sooner had he been declared the winner of the three-candidate race Wednesday morning than state and national Republicans began focusing on the fall race against Democratic Sen. Mark Begich.
With near-final returns in, Sullivan, who also served as state attorney general and in the U.S. State Department under President George W. Bush, defeated 2010 Senate nominee Joe Miller, with Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell coming in third. The second-place showing of Miller, who had the backing of tea party groups and Sarah Palin, was considered a surprise.
A PPP poll conducted shortly before the primary showed first-termer Begich edging Sullivan by a margin of 45 percent to 41 percent among likely voters in the Land of the Midnight Sun.
In Begich, Sullivan faces someone who got to the Senate under unique circumstances. Six years ago, then-Anchorage Mayor Begich won one of the tightest Senate contests in the nation against 40-year incumbent Ted Stevens. Days before the balloting, Stevens was found guilty on corruption charges by a jury in the District of Columbia. The conviction was dropped not long after he left the Senate. (Stevens died in a plane crash in 2010).
As one of the Republican Party's biggest targets in the Senate, Begich, 52, is running scared and that means running away from President Barack Obama. As he told The Washington Post last month, "I'll be a thorn in his [posterior]. There's times when I'm a total thorn, and he doesn't appreciate it."
A strong supporter of gun ownership and oil, Begich has focused his attention on his roots in Alaska and support of issues critical to the state. He claims credit, for example, for the keeping of F-16 fighter jets at a local base and, as the Post reported, "badgered the White House to allow new drilling off the Alaskan coast and to approve a road that will help expand drilling on land."
Coupled with these themes is Begich’s reminder that he is a native Alaskan with very special roots to the state. TV spots that began running in April feature clips of the senator’s late father, Democratic Rep. Nick Begich. In 1972, the elder Begich and then-House Majority Leader Hale Boggs, D-La., disappeared in a flight from Anchorage to Juneau. Despite an all-out search-and-rescue mission that lasted more than a month, no remains were ever found.
Along with this emphasis on his Alaska roots, Begich has begun to take shots at Sullivan for being a relatively recent resident of the state. After years overseas in the U.S. Marine Corps and then in Washington, D.C., Sullivan had long listed a $1.3 million home in Maryland as his principal residence. That ended in 2010, when then-Gov. Sarah Palin tapped him to be state attorney general, an appointed position in Alaska.
Sullivan points to public service as the reason for his living so long outside Alaska. Even before the primary, he slammed Begich for casting the deciding vote in the Senate to enact Obamacare. Independent groups have spent an estimated $10 million on TV spots underscoring Begich’s vote as that which made Obamacare the law of the land.
No one is making any bets on this contest other than it will be very close. In a state that gave the nation Democratic Sens. Ernest Gruening (who cast one of two votes against authorizing U.S. action in Vietnam in 1964) and Mike Gravel (who read the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record in 1971) and Republican Govs. Walter Hickel (who also served a stint as an independent) and Palin, unpredictability comes with the territory.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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