Politics

Why Mark Begich Might Actually Run for Senate

Write-in campaign by ex-senator could be a lifeline to party's majority hopes

Former Alaska Sen. Mark Begich has not ruled out running for Senate this year on a write-in campaign. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Running a last-minute, write-in campaign for Senate might seem like a crazy idea for Mark Begich.

But confidants of the former senator say he really might enter the Alaska race, convinced that the example of Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s own successful write-in campaign in 2010 and the unusual dynamic of this year’s ballot give him an opportunity to win.  

One longtime ally put the odds of a run at 40 percent.

“At the end of the day, I don’t think he runs, but he’s looking at it seriously,” said Jim Lottsfeldt, a Begich adviser who said he and his former boss discussed a potential campaign over lunch in Washington on Thursday.

[Mark Begich Doesn't Rule Out Alaska Write-In Campaign]

Begich first indicated he might jump into the race last week, when he told an Alaska political blog that he “was getting a lot of calls” from encouraging supporters. His initial interest surprised many of Begich’s allies, including Lottsfeldt, who described the news as “totally coming out of nowhere.”

But speculation has intensified since that he might actually do it.     

“It started as the statement on Friday,” said one former Begich aide. “Then built steam over the weekend. There's a ton of folks clamoring for it after Friday. Hasn't died down.”

Begich, the 54-year-old son of the late former Rep. Nick Begich, is a onetime mayor of Anchorage and served one term in the Senate. He narrowly lost re-election in 2014 to Dan Sullivan, falling by 2 points in a year that saw his party lose eight other seats.

In an interview, he declined to elaborate on his previous public comments about the race, saying that he "truly" enjoys his time with his family and his work.

“Alaska has a lot of challenges, and so does this country,” he said. “I’m flattered by the amount of people who have called me or contacted me. I will probably leave it at that.”

A spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said it does not discuss candidate recruitment. 

A political lifeline?

His candidacy — as unorthodox as it would be — would represent a potential lifeline to Senate Democrats as they scramble to win enough races in 2016 to take control of the legislative body. If Hillary Clinton wins the presidency, the party needs to win a net of four seats to flip the chamber, a goal that members of the party now worry they won’t reach thanks to the tightening presidential race.   

An against-all-odds victory in Alaska would ease the party’s chances considerably.

[Lisa Murkowski: From Write-In to Shoo-In?]

Murkowski was expected to cruise to re-election against an underfunded Democratic opponent and a handful of other third-party opponents, including Libertarian nominee Joe Miller.

Murkowski lost to Miller in the 2010 GOP Senate primary but defeated him in the general election thanks to an improbable write-in campaign. She appeared to have avoided him in 2016, until Miller was unexpectedly added to the ballot last week as the Senate nominee for the Libertarian Party.

Miller’s candidacy convinced Begich he could win, according to Lottsfeldt, who has also advised Murkowski. The Republican vote would split between Murkowski and Miller, the thinking goes, while Begich unifies Democrats and left-leaning independents.

“All of a sudden, you see all of [Murkowski’s] votes on the right dissipating,” Lotssfeldt said. “So she needs votes on the left, but now the left is going … why not vote for one of our own?”

Tough challenges

If he does run, the former senator would still face a handful of tough challenges. For one, the Democratic Party has a nominee, former state legislator and good-government activist Ray Metcalfe.

Metcalfe, who won his August primary with 50 percent of the vote, made it clear in an interview that he would not step aside for Begich, whom he considers corrupt.

“I tried to get Mark Begich indicted,” Metcalfe said.

In addition to the logistical difficulty of persuading voters to back a candidate whose name isn’t on the ballot, Begich would also face fierce resistance from the entrenched Murkowski.

[Mark Begich Keeps Busy, and Keeps His Options Open]

She proved popular enough with Alaska voters to win in 2010 despite running her own write-in campaign — thanks in part to an ineffectual and underfunded Democratic nominee that year.

Republicans say Begich would also face questions about his post-work Senate career and residency, hinting that he would be subject to the same attacks that have hounded Indiana Senate Democratic nominee and fellow former Sen. Evan Bayh during his campaign.

In early 2015, the Alaska native appeared to end to speculation that he would run for the Senate this election cycle when he joined a D.C.-based law and lobbying firm.

“If [Democratic Sen.] Chuck Schumer is seducing Mark Begich, then maybe he should first have a conversation with Evan Bayh and see how that’s working out,” said Andrea Bozek, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Still, Murkowski didn’t launch her own re-election campaign until Sept. 17 in 2010. And even GOP strategists concede that Begich would be able to raise money quickly in what would be a relatively inexpensive race.

“He could raise substantial money and have substantial third-party activity,” said Art Hackney, a veteran Alaskan GOP strategist.

For his part, Hackney said he thought there was a 50-50 chance Begich would enter the race, even if he acknowledged that many people still think the ex-lawmaker is setting himself up to run for governor in 2018.

“Most of the instincts in-state is he’s angling for … running for governor the next time,” Hackney said.

In any case, Lottsfeldt said the public will find out soon if Begich is running.

“He has to decide within the next week,” he said.

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