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In a unique twist among most Republican Senate primaries this cycle, the fight for the nomination in Alaska has become a two-headed battle for the establishment mantle.
Rather than an ideological showdown, the candidates are utilizing their various connections to prove they are better positioned to take on one of the top GOP targets in 2014, Democratic Sen. Mark Begich.
The race for support is between Dan Sullivan, a former Bush appointee with a wealth of Washington connections, and Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, who has been in or around Alaska politics for decades. Since entering the race in October, the buzz has centered squarely on Sullivan — even though he’s never run for office before.
Ivan Moore, an independent pollster in Alaska, said Sullivan’s candidacy immediately nudged Treadwell aside as the insiders’ pick to take on Begich.
“All of a sudden, it’s quite clear that Treadwell isn’t an establishment guy,” Moore said. “He’s establishment in the sense that he’s a high elected Republican official in the state of Alaska, but that doesn’t in this particular case mean that he’s establishment. He’s quite categorically not.”
The National Republican Senatorial Committee is staying publicly neutral in the race, and it has a standing policy of allowing any Republican Senate candidate to hold fundraisers at its headquarters.
However, eyebrows in both parties were raised in late October, when NRSC Chairman Jerry Moran of Kansas and Vice Chairman Rob Portman of Ohio both appeared at a Sullivan fundraiser held at party headquarters on Capitol Hill. Sullivan highlighted the private reception — which was hosted by a laundry list of former Bush administration officials — in an early November email to supporters. He noted in the missive that the campaign exceeded its fundraising goal.
In contrast, since beginning to raise money in February, Treadwell turned in consecutive quarterly reports showing less than $200,000 in receipts. Treadwell’s fundraising didn’t really get going until Republican Gov. Sean Parnell announced he would run for re-election rather than for Senate.
While Alaska candidates don’t need to raise as much because of the state’s relatively cheap advertising rates, by the end of the third quarter Begich had built a $2.3 million lead in cash on hand.
“Mead hasn’t done much,” one Republican source on Capitol Hill said. “He got in [the race] in February and had a lot of time to clear the field or put out an intimidating number, and he didn’t do it.”
That’s why Republican insiders will look closely at Sullivan’s first fundraising report to the Federal Election Commission since entering the race this fall — due on Jan. 31. There is particular interest in both how big of a number he posts and which donors turn up.
Should Sullivan’s first three months of fundraising turn out as positively as his campaign hopes, it will be the first-time candidate’s best opportunity at this early point to distinguish himself.
“The best way to see momentum is the fundraising effort,” Sullivan spokesman Mike Anderson said. “We’re optimistic we’ll be able to reach our goal come the end of this fourth quarter. We’re looking to put a pretty healthy number on the board.”
Perhaps, then, it was just a coincidence that Sullivan formally announced his candidacy on Oct. 15, when third-quarter fundraising reports were due to the FEC and the same day Treadwell reported raising just $196,000.
The Treadwell campaign intends to make the race a choice of record versus rhetoric, though it continues to focus on increasing its fundraising.
“We’re confident in our ability to improve quarter to quarter, and we’re going to have more than enough resources to run the campaign we want to run,” Treadwell spokesman Rick Gorka said. “We’ll see what Dan does.”
As of last week, both candidates now have super PACs in place for uncoordinated support on the airwaves. Begich has one too, and it launched a TV ad on Wednesday to defend him against attacks over Obamacare.
Joe Miller, a tea party favorite and the party’s 2010 Senate nominee, has been largely quiet so far. Miller defeated Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the Republican primary but blundered his general election campaign, paving the way for the senator to win re-election as a write-in candidate.
In this race, Miller remains a potential spoiler should Treadwell and Sullivan tear each other down. Moran met with Miller earlier this year, though it was largely because the two share Kansas roots.
“My guess is he keeps his head down and will try to make a big charge at the end,” veteran Alaska GOP pollster Marc Hellenthal said. “In a Republican primary, you can’t totally discount him. But like I’ve said before, Begich goes to heaven if he wakes up Wednesday morning and Miller is his opponent.”
Sullivan’s résumé reads straight out of a Republican textbook. He served in the Bush administration under Condoleezza Rice when she was national security adviser and secretary of State. He was appointed in 2009 as Alaska’s attorney general and most recently served as commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. His military service with the Marine Corps includes rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel and a deployment to Afghanistan this summer.
However, Republican insiders in the state expect Treadwell to play up the contrast of his own several decades in the state — spent mostly in business, policy and politics — with Sullivan’s time away. Both were born elsewhere and hold degrees from Ivy League schools.
The primary isn’t until Aug. 19, so voters have plenty of time to get to know both candidates. Alaska Republicans expect a hard-fought campaign and close election — one that will set up a solid contrast with Begich come November.
“These guys are both mainstream, solid,” Alaska Republican consultant Willis Lyford said. “They’re thoughtful conservatives and are not prone to making mistakes.”