Senate elections 101: In remote Alaska, remotest places could be crucial

To fend off his Republican challenger, Democratic Alaska Sen. Mark Begich is depending on rural voters and rural issues.

Ted S. Warren/AP/ File
Sen. Mark Begich (l.) waits for his late-night burger to be prepared as a moose head hangs on the wall of Kito's Kave, a bar in in Petersburg, Alaska, on Oct. 14.

The Monitor's "Senate elections 101" series looks at the specific issues that will be driving voters in each of the 10 tossup races.

In June, the United States Environmental Protection Agency did something that Alaskans are still talking about. Without waiting for the state to make up its own mind, the EPA made it up for Alaskans: It moved to stop the Pebble Mine, a proposed open-pit mine that would be one of the largest in the world.

To those who view the state’s wide-open spaces with a sense of manifest destiny, the EPA proposal was just another example of an overzealous EPA – Exhibit A of a job-killing Obama administration run amok.

To others, it was an unfortunate interference, but necessary. If the mine polluted Bristol Bay, it could devastate the state’s $5.8 billion fishing industry, not to mention an unspoiled ecosystem so beautiful that Alaskan Sarah Palin named her now-famous daughter after it.  

To be honest, the Alaska Senate race – like all the tossup Senate races across the US – is mostly about President Obama. Republican Dan Sullivan has Xeroxed those pages directly from the Republican playbook: A vote for Democratic incumbent Sen. Mark Begich is a vote for Mr. Obama, he says.

But if Senator Begich is to survive Mr. Sullivan’s Obama barrage, it might just be over issues like the Pebble Mine.

It’s one reason that the Alaska Federation of Natives endorsed Begich. It endorses candidates only rarely, and its endorsements carry no small weight. Put that endorsement together with a massive Begich ground game that has made contact with 43 percent of registered voters, according to a YouGov survey, and Begich’s own playbook becomes clear.

Make the election about local issues – not the president – and then try to turn out as many of the voters that care about those issues as possible.

It’s Begich’s attempt to win Alaska’s great unaffiliated middle. Generally speaking, Alaska’s electorate leans right. Some 60,000 registered voters are Democrat, and 134,000 are Republican. But 183,000 are unaffiliated, and with Republicans motivated to oust Begich, he’ll have to bring undeclared voters by the bushel.

Is he succeeding? That depends on which poll you look at. Alaska is notoriously hard on pollsters, and this year appears to be no different. One recent poll has Sullivan up by five points. Another has Begich up by six.

What seems certain is that, if Begich is going to win, it might take a while for the rest of America to find out. His campaign’s get-out-the-vote campaign has spread into Alaska’s remotest corners. Moreover, many of the voters most likely to be influenced by the Alaska Federation of Natives’ endorsement live in the hardest-to-reach places.

Counting of all those votes can take days. In a close race, they might matter.

Please read our other entries in this series:

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