KODIAK, Alaska — For Democrats to maintain control of the Senate, they have to hope that the Senate race in Alaska is decided by issues that most voters elsewhere have never confronted, like genetically modified salmon or fishing quotas.
One illustration of the party’s narrow path to victory came last week when Alaskan Steven West docked after spending four months about as far from the midterm elections as someone can get: aboard a fishing boat in the Bering Sea. He found Democratic incumbent Sen. Mark Begich at the Kodiak Island Brewing Co., and West’s first question was not about foreign affairs or the Affordable Care Act.
Instead, it concerned fishing quotas that West, 54, blames for damaging the island’s primary industry and the state’s largest employer. Begich told him that he heads a Senate subcommittee with jurisdiction over the nation’s fisheries, and he promised that the next round of quotas would be more fairly distributed.
“I appreciate that you’ve got our backs,” said a satisfied West.
But Alaska has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1968, and it’s unclear Begich can defy the partisan undertow that has endangered Democrats in far more evenly balanced places.
“It’s a very red state,” said David Shurtleff, a nonpartisan strategist in Anchorage, noting that less than one-fifth of Alaska’s 498,000 voters are registered Democrats. “You’re down 15 runs in the first inning, and you have to pitch a perfect game.”
Republicans are counting on a victory over Begich to be among the six new seats the GOP needs to take control of the Senate. They also acknowledge that if anyone can take advantage of the sometimes surreal nature of Alaska’s politics — small-town, person-to-person campaigning in a state as big as Texas and California combined — it is Begich.
His Republican challenger, former state Attorney General Dan Sullivan, rarely misses an opportunity to mention Begich’s name in the same sentence as President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Meanwhile Begich, the gregarious former mayor of Anchorage and son of a beloved congressman who died in a plane crash in 1972, tries to turn every discussion toward Alaska’s unique culture and issues.
“Alaskans like him when you’re talking about local issues, but that’s only if you forget the $17 trillion deficit, if you forget about immigration and amnesty, if you forget foreign policy issues,” said Republican state Rep. Bill Stoltze, who was a guest at Begich’s wedding but is backing Sullivan.
Begich’s much-praised television ads have played up his personality and his Alaska bona fides. One spot featured him snowmobiling above the Arctic Circle. A more recent one involves his mother and wife arguing about whether he’s “cheap” or “thrifty.”
Begich’s efforts to focus on Alaskan issues haven’t been flawless, however. The one major stumble of his campaign involved a spot attacking Sullivan for not seeking a stiffer sentence against a man later accused of a double murder and sexual assault — a spot taken down after the victims’ family protested it. The state’s senior senator, Republican Lisa Murkowski, who endorsed Sullivan, has also demanded Begich take down ads in which he says he works closely with her.
At the fisheries debate this past week on Kodiak Island, famed for its huge brown bears and large fishing port, Begich’s campaign had a table bedecked with lawn signs and buttons. One had a slash mark through the word “Frankenfish” in protest of genetically modified salmon.
Sullivan initially passed taking part in the fisheries debate, only to reschedule after a columnist noted that no candidate had ever skipped it and won a race for Senate in the state. Still, Sullivan didn’t have a table.
The candidates sat on an auditorium stage next to a poster for the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers. Begich, who wore a salmon pin on his lapel, won cheers for praising the electronic monitoring of fisheries. Sullivan drew groans from the crowd after admitting his brother owns a business that buys some farm-raised fish, though the business also buys Alaskan seafood. Sullivan hit back, repeatedly linking Begich to Reid and Obama.
Earlier in the day, as Begich won over West with talk of the state’s fisheries at the brewery, other patrons studiously avoided making eye contact with him. For them, Sullivan’s reminders about Begich’s Democratic ties are persuasive.
“I don’t appreciate a senator who doesn’t vote the way the state wants,” said Cliff Zawacki, 50, a retired Coast Guard officer who voted for Begich in 2008. “He voted for health care, which the majority of the state didn’t want. But he didn’t care.”
The winner may not be determined until after Election Day because of logistical challenges in counting ballots in the state’s far-flung communities. Despite so many political ads airing that gubernatorial candidates are finding it hard to book airtime for their spots, voters like George Juarez are only now thinking about the Senate race.
Juarez, 53, said “Obama sucks” with one breath — and then with the next complained about a proposed mine project near the headwaters of one of the state’s great salmon runs, opposed by Begich and environmentalists. Neither side in the Senate contest can count on his vote in November.
“I don’t know if I can decide on Begich,” he said.