Alaska Senate results: Incumbent Begich swept out by Republican tide

After an initial counting of absentee ballots showed that Sen. Mark Begich (D) would not be able to overcome former state Attorney General Dan Sullivan’s lead, Republicans extend their gains to eight Senate seats.

Ted S. Warren/AP
Republican Dan Sullivan, shown on election night in Anchorage, has been declared the winner of Alaska's Senate race, ousting Democratic incumbent Mark Begich. Sullivan's daughter Meghan is shown at right.

Chalk up another Senate race for the Republicans. Former state Attorney General Dan Sullivan is the winner in a tight race against incumbent Mark Begich (D), bringing the Republican Party's net gains in last week's election to eight Senate seats.

That total looks likely to reach nine come December, when a runoff election in Louisiana will decide whether incumbent Mary Landrieu (D) loses her seat to Bill Cassidy (R).

Senator Begich’s campaign effort succumbed to the same Republican tide that swept aside Democratic incumbents in North Carolina, Arkansas, and Colorado – all a sign of high voter disapproval of President Obama.

The Alaska result puts Republicans in a stronger majority in the US Senate when a new session starts in January (they needed just six new seats to take control), and gives them a little cushion against what’s expected to be a tough Senate rematch in 2016. The party also padded its commanding majority in the House.

The Associated Press reported that although Begich did not concede the race, initial counting of absentee ballots showed that the incumbent would not be able to overcome Mr. Sullivan’s 8,100-vote election night lead.

Sullivan cast his victory as one with implications for the nation as well as the “Last Frontier.”

“While we have challenges to address, the opportunities in Alaska and our country are limitless,” he said in a victory statement. “Today, we are going to begin the process of turning our country around.”

The Alaska race was among many that looked close in opinion polls leading up to Election Day but where voters broke against Mr. Obama’s party.

Begich and the other ousted incumbents were facing tough odds all along. Back in 2008, they had won election in states that now lean strongly Republican (Arkansas as well as Alaska) or are swing states in presidential elections (North Carolina and Colorado). Back then, a deep recession and financial crisis propelled Democrats into both the Oval Office and strong congressional majorities.

This time around, the political winds were blowing the other way. There was no presidential election to boost Democratic turnout. And a historical pattern of the president’s party losing ground in midterm elections was amplified by Obama’s low approval ratings and public discontent with the economy.

​Voter turnout in Alaska, at 55 percent of the eligible population, was much better than in other states, where midterm voting rates dipped below 40 percent. 

[Editor's noteThe original version of this sentence misstated the denominator used in measuring turnout percentages.]

With neither major party very popular, the contests this year had an unusually hard time dragging voters to the polls. Nationwide, turnout of about 36 percent was the lowest for a federal election since the midterm race of 1942, according to numbers gathered by the United State Elections Project at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Begich, like his colleagues in tough races, tried to present himself as a moderate – fighting for the interests of his constituents rather than the Obama agenda. One ad touted that “he took on Obama to get drilling in the Arctic,” and voted against a big Obama tax increase. He also contrasted his Alaska-born status with Sullivan’s more recent ties to the state.

Sullivan has roots in Alaska dating to the 1990s but was gone for nearly seven years for military service and work in Washington, D.C. He served as assistant secretary of State under President George W. Bush. Sullivan returned to Alaska in 2009, when he was appointed attorney general by then-Gov. Sarah Palin. He most recently served as Alaska's natural resources commissioner, a post he left in September 2013.

One pivotal point in the campaign was a negative ad by Begich's campaign that was seen by many as unfair. Painting Sullivan as soft on crime, the ad featured a man identified as a former Anchorage police officer standing outside the home where an elderly couple was killed and a family member sexually abused in 2013. The ad, which Sullivan responded to with one of his own, was pulled after a demand from an attorney for the victims’ family. 

Material from the Associated Press was used in this story.

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