Begich made it clear that highlighting his Anchorage roots and touting a relentless focus on state interests are vital to his re-election in a state the president lost by 13 points.
“When the president calls me at times, I’m usually in his face about oil and gas issues,” Begich said. “When the administration as recently as a couple days ago made a decision in an environmental impact statement, we’ll blast them to pieces if necessary.”
Representing and running in Alaska is a little different from doing it anywhere else, and the criticism of the Obama administration that Begich cited came in reaction to an Interior Department decision to prohibit the construction of a road from King Cove to Cold Bay to give residents access to an airport.
Weather can knock a candidate off schedule for days at a time, Begich said, and canvassing in a small village is far different than in an urban area like Anchorage.
Travel is his biggest challenge in running as an incumbent, the first-term senator said. But without it, Begich could easily be painted as out of touch and “gone Washington,” a routine chant incumbents face across the country.
That means his workday on Capitol Hill regularly includes participating in tele-town hall meetings and video teleconferences, as well as recording remarks to put on DVDs that his state-based staff takes to events across the state. Begich also calls upset constituents who have sent him emails and does regular appearances on conservative talk radio.
It’s imperative for Begich, who represents a state no Democrat has won at the presidential level since 1964. No Democratic White House contender had even broken 40 percent since 1968, according to Alaska pollster Ivan Moore, though Obama broke that streak in 2012.
Republicans are convinced Begich got lucky last time.
Then mayor of Anchorage, Begich entered the race in April 2008 — shortly before Stevens was brought up on federal corruption charges. Stevens was convicted in federal court one week before the election, a ruling that was thrown out five months later, long after Begich had taken office.
This cycle, the eventual Republican nominee will likely need to survive a different kind of trial: a competitive primary — and one that has the potential to be emblematic of the ideological battle unfolding within the state party.
On Jan. 31, establishment Republicans voted themselves back into control of the Alaska Republican Party. They voted hours before Russ Millette, a tea-party-backed supporter of former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, was set to take over as chairman.
Joe Miller, whose tea-party-backed candidacy in 2010 helped him defeat Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the GOP primary, is likely to run again for Senate. He could find himself in a race with Gov. Sean Parnell, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan or another Dan Sullivan, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and a former state attorney general.
Treadwell told CQ Roll Call last week that he met with Senate leadership on Capitol Hill in January. But he added he’s unlikely to decide whether to move beyond the exploratory phase of his candidacy until after the state legislative session.
“Whoever he runs against will be credible, and Begich is sitting there with about a 50 percent approval rating,” Moore said. “That means he’s going to be in a close race.”