A Look at the Alaska Senate Race

The Alaska Senate race pits freshman incumbent Democrat Mark Begich against former Attorney General and Commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources, Dan Sullivan. The race also includes libertarian candidate Mark Fish and Ted Gianoutsos, who is non-affiliated with any party. Because of its size and the extent of its wilderness, Alaska is notoriously expensive and difficult to poll, but Sullivan has been persistently leading in the polls for months by margins anywhere from two to six percentage points. Of course, that changed today with the release of a poll that shows Begich leading by a healthy 49%-39% margin. Without this latest poll included, the RealClearPolitics aggregate of polls shows Sullivan leading by 4.3%, which is outside the comfort zone even if the polls are skewing modestly Republican this year.

Three weeks ago, I wrote about Begich’s impressive ground game and I noted again on Monday how much I admire the work his team is doing in the field. Even the Republican operatives in Alaska admit that they have never seen anything like Begich’s political operation. And it’s not just his campaign’s presence in remote fishing and Native American communities that stands out.

Begich’s outreach extends into urban precincts as well. Andrew Halcro, president of the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce and a former Republican state legislator and gubernatorial candidate, said there is “no comparison” to the Begich operation.

“I have never seen 20-somethings roaming my neighborhood with iPads with the data they have,” Halcro said. “There’s never been this organized, concerted, backbone effort before.”

My sense is that there isn’t another competitive Senate contest in the country where one side has more of an advantage in their ground game than in Alaska. Yet, outside of the Hellenthal & Associates poll released today, Begich has been behind in every recent poll.

The Hellenthal poll stands out for another reason, though. All but one recent poll out of Alaska has shown the incumbent Republican Governor Sean Parnell losing his bid for reelection to independent Bill Walker. The Hellenthal poll, however, shows Parnell winning with a narrow 44.3%-42.5% advantage.

If Parnell really does lose, that would seem to be an advantage for Begich, as he won’t be fighting any coattails from the top of the ticket. On the other hand, a defeat for the governor might indicate an anti-incumbent mood that could wind up biting Begich, too.

The bottom line here is that there are too many unknowns to make a confident prediction. I don’t feel comfortable going against the aggregate of polls when they show a margin as big as 4.3%, but that number will go down once the Hellenthal poll is factored in. Everyone seems to agree that Begich has a great ground game and that it is heavily focused in parts of the state where phone service isn’t reliable, if it’s even available. One thing I can predict with some confidence is that Begich’s numbers will keep getting better the longer the counting goes on. A few hours after the polls close, it may look like he has lost, but as the votes trickle in from remote villages where he’s won 90% or better of the vote, the picture will change. The big question is whether or not the picture will change enough to give him another six year term in the Senate.

This is going to be a nail biter of an election, but I am going to stick my neck out a bit and predict that Begich will pull it out. I will not be surprised if it’s close enough to require a recount, nor will I be very surprised to be wrong about the eventual winner.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.