In the calculations for Republicans to take control of the Senate in November, Alaska was always expected to play an outsized role.
And why not? It’s a state that President Obama lost by 14 points. Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat, won his seat in 2008 by the barest of margins, even though his opponent, veteran GOP Sen. Ted Stevens, had been convicted of corruption charges. Before Begich, the last Democrat to win a Senate seat here came in 1974 – not an especially good year for the Republicans, given the Watergate scandal. To make things worse, the GOP Senate candidate that year was a member of the John Birch Society.
But before Mitch McConnell starts thinking about measuring the drapes for the majority leader’s office, he and his fellow GOPers should take a second look at Alaska. There may be far more Republicans here than Democrats, but they are not on the same page when it comes to 2014.
Part of the problem stems from the bitter Republican primary battle that occurred in 2010. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), a moderate, was stunned in the primary that year by tea party favorite Joe Miller. Miller owed his victory to no small part by his late endorsement by Sarah Palin, who had already resigned as governor but still had considerable influence in the state.
For her part, Palin became governor in 2006 when she knocked off the GOP incumbent, Frank Murkowski, in the primary. Frank Murkowski was a popular U.S. senator who parlayed that into his 2002 gubernatorial election. And after his election, he appointed his daughter, Lisa, to fill his Senate seat.
But Murkowski turned into an imperious and disliked chief executive, and so when Palin beat him in 2006, it turned into a blood feud between the two families.
But I digress. As much as party regulars were unhappy when Joe Miller defeated Lisa Murkowski in the 2010 primary, they were also dismayed when Lisa decided to mount a write-in campaign to keep her seat that fall. In a surprise election, she succeeded; let’s face it, getting people to go into a voting booth and spell “Murkowski” was not an easy task. But she won.
Fast forward to 2014. Miller is back, one of three Republican candidates competing in the August 19 primary to take on Sen. Begich. By most accounts, he is running third, behind former state Attorney General Dan Sullivan and Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell. But he has refused to rule out running as an independent or third-party candidate should he lose the primary, which could be the kiss of death for Republicans hoping to knock off Begich.
Unlike 2010, Palin has not played any role in the race. It is not an overstatement to say that her influence in the state has diminished to the point of near irrelevance.
Things are not going so smoothly between Sullivan and Treadwell either. Sullivan, who was appointed attorney general by then-Gov. Palin and who most recently was Alaska’s commissioner of natural resources, has the most money as well as the backing of Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, the U.S. Chamber of Comerce and the Club for Growth. He has held a small but consistent lead in the polls. Treadwell has been questioning his roots in the state, repeatedly reminding voters that Sullivan was born in Ohio and lived in Maryland while working for the State Department under Condoleezza Rice, who also supports his Senate bid.
Adding to the GOP woes is a split between the more moderate, establishment wing of the party and forces aligned with ex-Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), which have made huge inroads inside the organization.
For the record, polling in Alaska has a history of tenuous accuracy. But there’s evidence that it’s not only limited to the 49th state. As Eric Cantor can attest.
As for Begich, many observers give him high marks for running a strong campaign and a series of effective campaign commercials. And he has, out of necessity, been highlighting his breaks from the Obama administration, most notably over guns. But he has stuck with the president over the Affordable Care Act, and the Republican nominee – whomever it turns out to be – will be hitting him with that in the fall.
More ads have been run in Alaska than in any other Senate race in the country. And it’s only July.