Alaska Senate primary: GOP mobilizes to thwart Democratic 'meddling'

In 2010 and '12, Democrats funded ads to topple GOP 'establishment' candidates before they could get to a general election. But this year Republicans saw it coming in Alaska, and 'establishment' favorite Dan Sullivan is campaigning on it.

Becky Bohrer/AP
Dan Sullivan, viewed as the GOP 'establishment' candidate for election to the US Senate, waves signs along a busy street on the morning of Alaska's primary election Tuesday, in Anchorage, Alaska.

Alaskans vote in a GOP primary Tuesday that could tip the US Senate to Republican control. It’s a three-way race that’s hard to call – one reason being the enormous amount of money that Democrats have spent to influence the outcome.

An outside group, Put Alaska First, that supports the embattled Democratic incumbent, Sen. Mark Begich, has poured nearly $4 million into attack ads against the GOP “establishment” favorite, Dan Sullivan.

The GOP calls it “meddling.” Democrats say it’s just competitive electioneering and hope it will weaken the opposition. That’s what happened in Nevada’s Senate race in 2010 and Missouri’s in 2012, when pro-Democrat advertising helped produce GOP primary winners who were not strong enough to win the general election.

But there’s no guarantee this strategy will work, especially since Republicans have seen it before. Indeed, it failed in North Carolina earlier this year, when, despite a barrage of bashing in ads from the pro-Democrat Senate Majority PAC, Republican Thom Tillis nonetheless emerged victorious from a crowded primary field.

Now that Republicans know the Democrats’ playbook, “they get called out,” says Jennifer Duffy, who follows Senate races for the independent Cook Political Report.

So it is in Alaska. Put Alaska First, which gets most of its money from the Washington-based Senate Majority PAC, has gone after Mr. Sullivan for being an outsider. He was born in Ohio and moved to Alaska after law school. But then he left to serve in the George W. Bush administration, returning in 2009.

The well-funded Sullivan has hit back.

“Seen these ads attacking Dan Sullivan? Flat out lies,” a video spot says. “Who’s paying for them? Barack Obama and Harry Reid’s political machine,” says the ad, referring to the Senate majority leader and his affiliated political action committee. The ad goes on to say that Begich’s liberal friends are “meddling” in the Alaska race for a reason: They know Sullivan is the only one who can beat Begich. “Don’t let Washington liberals tell you what to do,” the ad cautions.

The GOP response to pro-Democrat funded ads this year is different in another respect, says Ms. Duffy. “This election cycle, Republicans aren’t afraid to take sides in primaries. They were extremely reluctant to do so last cycle,” she says.

While the National Republican Senatorial Committee is not backing any particular candidate in the Alaska primary, that hasn’t stopped leading GOP figures and a broad array of groups, ranging from the conservative Club for Growth to the more mainstream Chamber of Commerce, from openly backing Sullivan.

Ideally for Begich, Sullivan won’t be able to break from the primary scrum, and the incumbent will face either Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, who is far behind Sullivan in fundraising, or tea party darling Joe Miller, who won the GOP Senate primary four years ago but lost to Republican incumbent Lisa Murkowksi in her write-in campaign.

Even if Democrats can’t take out Sullivan, they hope they can at least take him down a notch and slow his momentum.

Still, Alaska is “a pretty red state,” says Duffy. “People forget the circumstances of Begich’s victory.” The Democrat defeated incumbent Ted Stevens – the Senate’s longest serving Republican – just eight days after Stevens was convicted of violating federal ethics laws, a conviction that was later set aside.

“Mark Begich didn’t win that race as much as Ted Stevens lost that race,” says Duffy. The money being poured into the anti-Sullivan campaign simply shows how “very very vulnerable” Begich is.

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