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Embattled Sen. Begich's secret weapon: Alaska

Thursday - 8/21/2014, 2:44am  ET

BECKY BOHRER
Associated Press

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) -- Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Begich wants Alaskans to know he is one of them and an independent voice against President Barack Obama. But Tuesday's primary produced a GOP nominee with a military record that could hold broad appeal in a state with a high population of veterans.

Newly-nominated GOP challenger Dan Sullivan, Alaska's former attorney general and a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps reserves, poses a challenge for Begich that the freshman lawmaker didn't face in 2008, when he defeated scandal-plagued incumbent Ted Stevens. The veteran senator spent most of that election in a courtroom. Sullivan faces no such restrictions on his time. He's demonstrated a fundraising prowess that rivals Begich's.

But unlike Begich, who was born and raised in Alaska, Sullivan hails from Ohio. Sullivan's wife, however, is from Alaska and his roots here date to the 1990s. Sullivan also has spent much of the past 10 months battling it out in a three-way GOP primary and fending off attacks by Democrats and a pro-Begich super PAC. Begich, meanwhile, faced no real Democratic opposition and has spent money and time building his bona fides in a state where relationships and roots are important to voters.

Begich used the time to open campaign offices in far-flung places like a coin-operated laundry in Dillingham, a hamlet of 2,000 people. He's allowed himself to be videotaped strutting his stuff at the Athabascan Fiddlers' dance in Fairbanks. And as anyone with a television knows, he rode a snowmobile in subzero temperatures in the Arctic, speaking into a camera about fighting the Obama administration to help secure offshore drilling permits.

The two-pronged message puts the freshman senator in a unique position to benefit from this conservative state's strong nonpartisan streak, despite its overwhelming votes against Obama in 2008 and 2012. For many voters, going with the person they know and trust matters far more than party labels.

"The national policies are important," said Bill Popp, president of the Anchorage Economic Development Corp. and a longtime friend of Begich. "But the ground game of how you take care of constituents' needs in the state will be much more important."

Begich knows this. His campaign motto is "True Alaska" and, despite holding a leadership position in the Senate Democratic conference, he has worked to cast himself as independent voice. To defeat him, Republicans will have to convince voters that it's bad for the country for Democrats to control the Senate -- the GOP needs to net six seats to win control of the chamber -- but also that Begich is bad for Alaska.

The Republican National Committee, which has established a field presence here, is seeking to cast the race as a referendum on Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Sullivan called Begich a "loyal lieutenant" to Reid.

"Now is the time to focus on the real issues that matter the most to Alaskans," Sullivan said in a statement early Wednesday. "I look forward to painting a clear contrast between Mark Begich's inability to move our state forward and my vision for a brighter and better Alaska."

In Anchorage, where Begich grew up and once served in the assembly and as mayor, his campaign signs sat in some yards next to the independent candidate for governor and those supportive of oil tax cuts put in place by the Republican-controlled state Legislature last year. Some people still remember his days as a property manager, when he would show up at all hours to fix leaky toilets.

"Let's not get caught up in the D.C. trap of Democrats versus Republicans," he said in an interview. "When you're in Alaska it's about what's important for Alaska."

Begich will soon have 13 field offices in the state, including in communities that his campaign said have never had them before, like Barrow, billed as the northern most city in the United States, and Dillingham, where people have P.O. boxes for addresses. Having support in rural Alaska is seen as critical to running a successful statewide race, particularly one that's expected to be tight.

He says that establishing an office sends a message: "Look, you are part of this campaign. We need your help. I need your support. I need your time."

Growing up, Begich wanted nothing to do with politics, which he blamed for his father's death. Nick Begich was Alaska's lone congressman when the plane carrying him and House Majority Leader Hale Boggs, D-La., vanished en route to Juneau in 1972. Mark was 10.

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