Authenticity matters to voters deciding Alaska’s Senate race

One of the most competitive and consequential Senate races this year is in Alaska, where voters give more than lip service to state identity and their suspicion of outsiders -- and President Obama. Liz Ruskin of Alaska Public Media offers a look at the two candidates and the political lay of the land in America’s last frontier.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    We are now five days from the midterm election.

    There are competitive races from coast to coast, and even beyond the lower 48. In Alaska, the Senate contest extends beyond politics to history and identity.

    As part of our election year collaboration with public broadcasters across the country, Liz Ruskin of Alaska Public Media takes us to the last frontier.

  • LIZ RUSKIN, Alaska Public Media:

    This vast state is the setting for one of the most competitive Senate races this year, a race about the identity of this place and which man best represents its future.

  • SEN. MARK BEGICH, D-Alaska:

    Between now and Election Day, I will work every single hour.

  • LIZ RUSKIN:

    The incumbent is Democrat Mark Begich, former mayor of Anchorage. His father served in Congress, but died when Mark was 10. Nick Begich was running for his second term in 1972 when his plane disappeared over the Alaska wilderness. Now his son is running hard for his second term.

  • DAN SULLIVAN, Alaska Senatorial Candidate:

    Everybody — everybody knows, this is it, right here, the control of the U.S. Senate.

  • WOMAN:

    You bet.

  • LIZ RUSKIN:

    Challenger Dan Sullivan was raised in suburban Cleveland. In law school, he fell in love within an Alaskan and moved to her home state. He's a former state attorney general and a current reservist officer in the Marines. This is his first run for elected office.

  • MICHAEL CAREY, Alaska Dispatch News:

    People want to know you're here for legitimate purposes.

  • LIZ RUSKIN:

    Michael Carey has written about state politics for decades. He says successful candidates here must prove they belong in Alaska.

  • MICHAEL CAREY:

    Alaska has a long history of being ruled by outsiders. In some part, it's been the federal government. After all, we were a territory. So there's also been a question, and to some degree, that's true now with the oil industry, about the authenticity of the people who are here and whose interests they are serving. Are they really Alaskans or are they just here to get the money and leave?

  • LIZ RUSKIN:

    There's a third character in this race, Barack Obama. The president is extremely unpopular in Alaska. The Sullivan camp is working hard to make sure Alaskans see Begich and Obama as teammates.

    Journalist Amanda Coyne covers Alaska politics on a Web site bearing her name. She says Obama is an effective foil because he represents unwelcome outside power.

  • AMANDA COYNE, AmandaCoyne.com:

    You know, we're talking about Obama here, but I think that really we have to talk about the Democratic Party as a whole. If you're relying on oil, as we are in Alaska, it can appear that Democrats are your enemy. They are distrustful of oil companies. They are distrustful of resource extraction.

  • MAN:

    We're not with any political party. We actually do independent research.

  • LIZ RUSKIN:

    Meanwhile, Alaskans are being hit with an avalanche of political communication on a scale they have never seen before.

  • WOMAN:

    It's so annoying, not to mention phone calls and Internet ads.

  • LIZ RUSKIN:

    The size of the bombardment reflects the state of the race.

  • DAN SULLIVAN:

    Literally, control of the U.S. Senate is at stake. And, again, I think we can start moving our country in a positive direction, in contrast to where it's gone under Harry Reid, Barack Obama, and Mark Begich.

  • LIZ RUSKIN:

    That kind of anti-Washington talk is at the core of Sullivan's campaign. He says he would be more effective than Begich at rolling back federal limits on oil production.

  • DAN SULLIVAN:

    It's not only opportunities for Alaskans and our future. It's an opportunity for Americans is to have more access to federal lands.

  • LIZ RUSKIN:

    For two months, Sullivan has held a narrow lead in the race. As a result, Begich is in overdrive. And some polls suggest he may be closing the gap. The senator stresses that he has delivered results for Alaskans and he's keeping his distance from Obama.

  • SEN. MARK BEGICH:

    I know that's all he has to talk about, is Obama, but this is about Alaska. This is about the next six years.

  • LIZ RUSKIN:

    To beat Sullivan, Begich needs a strong turnout operation. Supporters like these union workers could be essential to that effort.

  • SEN. MARK BEGICH:

    I fight for what's important for Alaska. Sometimes, I will disagree with the president. On guns, on oil and gas, on some other issues that he's brought forward, I pushed back on them. I will fight for what's important for Alaska. My record shows it, and I'm proud of the things we have been able to do.

  • LIZ RUSKIN:

    The area of land owned by the federal government here is larger than the entire state of Texas. That gives Washington a big role to play in how Alaska uses its resources. And this Senate race is in part a debate over the merits and limits of federal power.

    Republican political consultant Art Hackney, who launch aid super PAC to support Sullivan, says Alaskans appreciate federal funds, but not Washington's control.

  • ART HACKNEY, GOP Political Consultant:

    In Alaska, federal overreach is a bad word. The stories are legion that — the stupidity of federal regulations and how they impact day-to-day lives in Alaska.

    So federal over-reach impacts just about everything, resource development, recreation. It's — it's a very salient point in how people decide what they do and don't like about government.

  • WOMAN:

    Nov. 4 is Election Day, but we're asking people to vote early.

  • LIZ RUSKIN:

    You hear other views from Alaska's large Native population, which just gathered for a convention in Anchorage. Alaska Natives comprise 15 percent of the population, and those who identify as tribal members often see the federal government as an ally.

  • HEATHER KENDALL-MILLER, Attorney, Native American Rights Fund:

    Our society needs a strong federal government for many reasons. But when it comes to relations with indigenous peoples, the federal government has always had a special relationship. It, by law, has an obligation to respect treaties and to protect and preserve a way of life. And Dan Sullivan doesn't get that.

  • LIZ RUSKIN:

    Alaskans are already casting ballots, thanks to early in-person voting. And the decision may be a national cliffhanger. Alaska is notorious for close elections that take days to fully count.

    If control of the Senate does rest on Alaska, the country could very well have its eyes on this race long after Election Day has passed.

    Liz Ruskin, Alaska Public Media.

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