Alaska Democratic Sen. Mark Begich logged some 140,000 miles in the air last year, trekking back and forth to The Last Frontier at least twice a month.
That’s enough to earn Alaska Airline’s elite passenger status several times over — and the number of 10-hour door-to-door trips should only increase as Begich starts his first re- election race.
“Alaskans expect you to be seen, and they expect to talk to you,” said Begich, one of the most vulnerable senators up in 2014. “It’s not like running in California or even Maryland or Virginia. They expect you to show up when they call you. So that’s a huge part of the equation.”
Begich is running in a reliably Republican state, and he laughed as he described President Barack Obama’s 13-point loss in Alaska last year as “an improvement” over previous presidential performances.
He’s one of six Democratic senators running for re-election in states the president lost, and national Republicans will be sure to bring up his house in the nation’s capital and his ties to Obama and Senate Democratic leadership.
“Sen. Mark Begich simply hasn’t been the guy he promised that he would be as a candidate,” National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brad Dayspring said.
As the first-term Democrat, who defeated longtime Republican Sen. Ted Stevens by some 4,000 votes in 2008, sat down for an extended interview last week, an aide walked in carrying a bronze eagle statue that Begich had received that day for his work on behalf of National Guardsmen. The aide placed the award at the center of a white marble fireplace mantel between a long line of family pictures, including one of the senator’s wife catching a 62-pound king salmon.
Begich made it clear that highlighting his Anchorage roots and touting a relentless focus on state interests are vital to his re-election.
“Most of my living has come from the small business world, so people know me in a variety of ways,” Begich said. “If they want to do that, I’ll give them case after case where I’ve pushed back on the president.”
Begich touts his record on pushing for Arctic energy development and being an advocate for the state’s military interests, and he cites the achievements of getting a research vessel built for the University of Fairbanks and a permanent reauthorization of an American Indian health care improvement law.
Begich said his agenda doesn’t always align with the president’s, which makes for some lengthy and testy phone conversations.
“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.”
Despite Obama’s shrinking margin of defeat, Moore said there is no evidence of an increase in Alaska Democrats. Independent voters account for about 53 percent of the electorate, followed by Republicans with 28 percent and Democrats with less than 15 percent.
“I don’t think the state is getting any easier,” Moore said.