Alaska Sen. Mark Begich is all of a sudden the likely beneficiary of a legislative blunder that may send more voters to the polls this fall.
Begich's midterm electorate is expected to expand as a result of the Republican-controlled state Legislature’s failure to gavel out by its April 20 deadline, an error — or conscious decision, depending on whom you ask — that has been the talk of Alaska political circles for the past few weeks. It automatically shifted to the general election three ballot initiatives on marijuana, the minimum wage and the environment — issues that could draw to the polls voters more likely to also support the Democratic incumbent.
Winning re-election in Alaska, where Republicans outnumber Democrats 2 to 1, is more than a base-turnout game for Begich. It will also require the first-term senator to persuade enough independents and Republicans to support him over his GOP opposition.
Begich was elected in 2008, just days after Sen. Ted Stevens was convicted in federal court on corruption charges, helping boost the then-Anchorage mayor to a winning margin of less than 4,000 votes. Democrats in the state see the ballot initiative moves as similarly beneficial.
“No Democrat in Alaska wins by much statewide,” said state Senate Minority Leader Hollis French, a Democrat running for lieutenant governor. “You need some miracle to win, and this might be just enough of that final boost to carry over the line.” The three measures that will now share a ballot with the gubernatorial contest, Senate race and most of the state legislative seats deal with increasing the minimum wage, legalizing marijuana and forcing the Legislature to ensure no negative impacts on Bristol Bay before a massive mining operation can proceed.
That environmental issue is expected to draw the most passionate response, Alaska Republicans and Democrats said recently. Begich announced opposition to the mine earlier this year. Now, he could see a windfall of support from Alaskans who may not have voted at all in November.
Still, in a brief interview at the Capitol last week, Begich declined to discuss the ramifications of the three initiatives getting bumped to the general.
“We’re always pushing for more voters to turn out, whatever happens,” the Democrat told CQ Roll Call.
His Alaska colleague, Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, said in an interview the state will undoubtedly see a voter turnout increase as a result, but she wasn’t sure it would be to Begich’s benefit.
“I think when money is spent on initiatives it generates a constituency that might be more inclined to get out the vote than if there weren't initiatives on the ballot,” Murkowski told CQ Roll Call. “Which way it splits, I can't predict that, but I do think that you will see an uptick in the turnout.”
Begich could conceivably face one of three Republicans vying for the nomination in the Aug. 19 primary, but former state Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan is the clear front-runner and favorite of national party strategists. Also running are Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and attorney Joe Miller, who was the party’s Senate nominee in 2010.
While Begich remains among the most vulnerable incumbents of the cycle, multiple Republicans in the state who spoke with CQ Roll Call were fairly adamant that he would see a benefit from the initiatives appearing on the ballot, no matter his opponent.
“If it was a presidential year, I’d say it was shrub at the shoulder,” GOP pollster Marc Hellenthal said. “It’s not, so you’ll get people that will only vote because of Pebble Mine or only vote because of marijuana or would only vote because of minimum wage. Those three groups of marginal voters should favor Begich.”
Beyond the numbers, there is frustration among Republicans with an interest in the Senate race that state legislative leaders may have deliberately pushed the three initiatives to the general to help their side on an oil tax referendum that will still appear on the primary ballot.
“I think it was a very conscious decision for a hugely important economic issue, to try and move the three initiatives away from impacting it,” said Art Hackney, a veteran Republican consultant in the state, who is running a super PAC supporting Sullivan.
“But the duplicity of it is just what I said,” Hackney continued. “The turnout model with a lot of them being one-issue voters, they skew vastly toward Mark Begich and Byron Mallott for governor in the general now.”
Republican state Senate Majority Leader John Coghill poured cold water on the impact, citing the number of competitive races on the ballot this cycle.
“To get out the vote is going to be highly concentrated this year like never before,” he said. “So will these ballot measures affect some of those things? If they do, to me it’s marginal.”
Regardless of any potential impact, the Begich campaign intends to continue to drive home the message that the senator has fought for Alaska interests during his six years in office. Begich’s last few TV ads have featured him flying to remote parts of the state and highlighting his push for oil drilling while riding a snowmachine across the frozen Arctic Ocean.
Still, political insiders in the state said the incumbent has reason to smile.
“I’m sure Begich is happy,” Hellenthal said.
Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.