In 2010 the senate election in Alaska was focused on the intraparty fighting among Republicans. In that election, Joe Miller who had backing from Sarah Palin won the US Republican Senate primary defeating incumbent Senator Lisa Murkowski and appeared to be a shoe-in to win that election.
What he didn't count on was that Alaska allows for a write-in candidacy.
Senator Murkowski launched a successful write-in bid and defeating Miller in a three-way election and kept her senate seat. I am no fan of Republicans, but I do enjoy seeing an interparty fight and I would rather have her in the senate than Joe Miller.
For the third time in four election cycles, Alaska is part of the national political discussion.
Alaska is the largest state in the Union by land area. It is also one of the most sparsely populated states averaging 1.3 people per square mile and has a population of 735,000 people. In comparison, Denver has a population of 634,000 people and Dallas has 1.26 million people according to the US Census.
Alaska, like a lot of the states I have profiled in previous writings, is a red state at the presidential level but does have a history of electing Democrats as you head down ballot. It also has a very strong independent streak. So strong that there is a third party dedicated specifically to Alaskan secession.
The Alaska Independence Party received a lot of attention in 2008 when it was revealed that then-Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin's husband, Todd, was a member of the Alaskan Independence Party.
Despite this revelation, Alaska maintained its status as a reliably red state in presidential elections in 2008. Since becoming a state in 1960, a Democrat has only won the state once. That was in President Johnson's 1964 landslide victory over Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. Since then the closest the state has ever come to turning blue was in 1968 when Richard Nixon won the state by 2.63 points. The best a Democrat could hope for was at best 40%.
Generally Alaska is called for long after the presidential election has been called for (exception: 2000) due to it being one of the last states being called and its result is generally not in doubt.
Something else happened in 2008 as well.
Long serving Senator Ted Stevens was indicted and convicted on 7 corruption charges. Stevens maintained his innocence, but the voters decided it was best to not let a convicted felon serve in the Senate. Former Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, the son of Nick Begich who served in the Alaska senate and as the state's lone representative from 1971 until his death in October 1972, was elected to the Senate that November. Begich became the first Democrat elected to the Senate since Mike Gravel.
Begich's re-election was going to be difficult due to running in a red state like many of his other Democratic colleagues. While Begich is in line with a lot of the Democratic Party positions such as marriage equality, being pro-choice, voting for The Stimulus, and supporting ObamaCare, he does differ with the party on environmental issues.
In 2008, Begich stated his support for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Environmentalists are feverishly opposed to drilling in this ecosystem, but in Alaska it is a political wedge issue. Those that are in favor claim that it will create jobs, a revenue stream, and bring our country closer to energy independence. I am on the side of that it is a temporary solution to a long term problem and that we have not had a great history when it comes to cleaning up oil spills (see: Gulf Coast 2010).
In 2012, Frontline aired a program on mineral mining in Alaska's Bristol Bay where it is home to one of the largest salmon fisheries in the world. In March 2014, it appeared that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was either going to restrict or even ban plans to mine this environmentally sensitive area. While the EPA might rule on this next year, voters will be deciding this November on a ballot initiative concerning mineral mining.
According to the New York Times' Senate model, Begich is likely headed towards defeat. Alaska is one of six competitive seats and is giving his Republican challenger Dan Sullivan a 79% chance of winning. Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight is at 76%. Daily Kos agrees with the New York Times listing a 79% chance for the Republican as well. Huffington Post is giving better odds for Begich by saying Sullivan has a 66% chance of winning. PredictWise and the Washington Post are saying that there is a greater than 80% chance that Sullivan will win.
However, the more reliable forecasters in the Cook Political Report, Rothenberg, and Larry Sabato still have the Alaska Senate election rated as a Tossup.
In September, Nate Silver wrote this piece about Alaska being a place for bad polling. For instance, the four polls that were conducted for the 2008 senate elected showed Begich with an average poll margin of nearly 10 points. Begich won that election by 1.2 points. In the polls conducted in Alaska since 2000, there has been an average bias towards a Democrat of 7.2 points.
Why are the polls so tough to poll in Alaska? No one is quite sure as shown in this New York Times piece from August 2014. The obvious answers are that the state is sparsely populated which could be why pollsters have missed the state badly.
Silver in his piece critiques that the only polls they have looked at have so far been internet, automated, or partisan polls which are usually not the most reliable.
Six days ago, FiveThirtyEight published this piece about how Sullivan's chances have improved given the polls showing him with a lead. Of course it cautions about the data they are looking at and how Alaska has a history of poor polling.
So, who has the advantage in Alaska?
Begich has the advantage of incumbency and I don't feel like this election has the same anti-incumbency wave from four years ago. Now, in 2010 I was living in Texas where the anti-incumbency was strong and in 2014 I am now living in Colorado, but even with the change of location I don't feel the anti-incumbency wave. He also has been building a turnout operation in order to reach the small villages in the state. In 2012, Alaska had 82 early voting locations located in the larger population centers. Alaska Native leaders demanded better access in their parts of the state and as a result 208 early voting locations are available, more than three-fourths are in rural Alaska.
Begich has 16 campaign offices fielding 90 paid staff members vs. Sullivan's 5 campaign offices with 14 paid staff members total. Begich's campaign offices are aimed at turning out Alaska Native population which makes up 20% of the state's population but has historically low turnout.
The ground game is what is important and whoever has the better ground game will likely win this election.
A couple more factors could play in this race. Alaska has a couple more ballot initiatives this year. One is recreational marijuana which actually doesn't bring young people to the polls. The other is one that would raise the minimum wage in Alaska from $7.75 to $9.75 an hour by 2016. Senator Begich supports raising the minimum wage and those that would vote yes for the ballot initiative might vote to keep him in the senate.
The other is this and probably why the national Democratic Party is investing in a turnout machine in Alaska for Begich.
Well, besides the obvious of Alaska being necessary for Senate control.
Obama lost Alaska in 2012 by nearly 14 points. Compared to 2008, the Obama loss in Alaska was 22 points. Alaska was the state with the strongest Democratic gain and it was the first time since 1968 that a Democrat crossed 40% in the state. Based on that assumption, Alaska could be worth staying up to watch during presidential elections.
Now before Democrats start Battleground Alaska for 2020, Nate Silver back when FiveThirtyEight was in the New York Times' sphere along with Jordan Shilling of the Alaska Dispatch News looked at the prospects of a blue Alaska. The conclusion is that yes Democrats are making inroads but not enough to turn the state blue at the presidential level. Perhaps under the right conditions of a Democratic candidate from the center-left or libertarian-left of the party and enough Democratic transplants from other states could make the state competitive in the future, but that is a lot of ifs.
For chances of maintaining Senate control, Alaska could be the Last Frontier for the Democrats.