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The Fate of the Senate Could Come Down to Alaska

Among the truest things you can say about Mark Begich—the imperiled Alaska Democrat, whose loss this November might flip the Senate—is that he’s sweet. Easygoing, plain-looking, and sweet. He’s a meaty handshake guy. Someone who will happily don a lei at a pancake breakfast and talk for hours with people who were going to vote for him anyway.

It’s also fair to say that he has performed without distinction as a senator since winning a fluke election six years ago. He doesn’t have a trademark issue; no important bill bears his name. As a Democrat from a red state, he landed positions on both the commerce and appropriations committees, but according to one commerce staffer who claims to like Begich personally, he often arrives at meetings unprepared and asks questions whose answers lie in summaries just in front of him.

His senatorial career probably never should have begun. Eight days before the 2008 race, a jury convicted his opponent, Ted Stevens—a one-man imperium who served more years in the Senate than any other Republican—for failing to report hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts. But it turned out that prosecutors had withheld evidence. In 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder asked that the verdict be set aside and the indictment be dismissed with prejudice, a rare move meaning the case could never be filed again. Still, all that occurred after Begich had sneaked in by just 3,724 votes. And so Alaska finds itself with its first Democratic incumbent senator in 30 years.

And the Democratic Party very badly needs him to hold on this November. Basically all statistical models show the Senate to be a toss-up. The Arkansas race looks like it’s slipping away. Louisiana, New Hampshire, Colorado, and North Carolina will be tough holds. Control of the Senate largely rests then on whether Begich can convince Alaska’s 498,000 registered voters—of whom only 14 percent are Democrats—that he’s worthy of a second term, that he’s more than just a nice guy who lucked into a big job.

I arrived in Alaska on the day of the Republican primary, on a plane loaded with men who had come to fish or drill. The Tea Party was fielding a candidate who at least should have won some sympathy votes. Joseph Miller defeated Senator Lisa Murkowski in the 2010 primary only to lose to her in the general election—when Republican elders rose up, emptied their pockets, and funded her highly unusual but successful write-in candidacy. This time, Miller had the misfortune of running against Dan Sullivan, who won with some ease.

Sullivan is the kind of Republican that Republicans have learned to field after the disastrous flameouts of Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell, and Todd Akin. He is an Ivy League–educated attorney, a former member of both the National Economic Council and the National Security Council, and a decorated Marine reservist who isn’t given to statements about “legitimate rape” or not being a witch. He is undeniably conservative and unfailingly politic. When I asked if he wanted the endorsement of Sarah Palin, who appointed him to be the state’s attorney general in 2009, he waited a few awkward beats before saying: “I want the endorsement of everybody. Anybody who believes in less government, more freedom, and pushing back on the Obama administration’s overreach into our lives.”

His homepage has photographs of his attractive family—one shows him in front of a log cabin, helping his youngest daughter learn to shoot as a giant American flag waves in the background—but not much policy content. He speaks almost exclusively in talking points: Begich is too liberal for the state; Alaska needs someone who opposes gay marriage, tax hikes, Obamacare. It’s as if he’s trying to perfect snooziness as a campaign strategy.

In any case, national Republicans are smitten with Sullivan—or the idea of his winning the Senate for them. American Crossroads, the super PAC (political action committee) Karl Rove helped start, has spent nearly $900,000 to fight Begich and another $326,000 to support Sullivan. Those may sound like small sums, but they represent Federal Election Commission reports only through September 24. The numbers will be astronomic by Election Day. Sullivan is also benefiting from the efforts of a single-candidate super PAC with the cumbersome name Alaska’s Energy / America’s Values, which has spent more than $628,000 to support Sullivan so far. Most of that PAC’s money is managed by longtime Rove confederate Art Hackney and originates from Sullivan’s family. In 1947, Sullivan’s grandfather Frank started what is now known as RPM International Inc., a holding company based in Ohio that specializes in chemicals. RPM earned $4.1 billion in revenue last year, and Sullivan himself grew up in Fairview Park, Ohio, not far from RPM’s plants.

And that’s a problem. Just about every time Begich opens his mouth, he mentions that Sullivan isn’t a true Alaskan. When I told Sullivan that it seemed as if he’d barely spent any time here, he noted that, in 1994, he married Julie Fate, born in Fairbanks to a dentist who later served in the legislature. Sullivan and Fate didn’t fall in love in the Yukon, however. They both graduated from Harvard in 1987; later they dated in Washington, where she was working for Ted Stevens and he was attending Georgetown.

Begich, on the other hand, has a very Alaskan story to tell. In October 1972, his father, Alaska’s sole member of the House of Representatives, was on a flight from Anchorage to Juneau that disappeared. Partly because House Majority Leader Hale Boggs Sr. was also on the plane, service members from three military branches relentlessly searched mountainous terrain for 39 days. The two congressmen, along with Begich aide Russell Brown and the pilot, were eventually declared dead; their bodies were never recovered. (Ted Stevens used to joke that plane crashes were “the occupational hazard of Alaska politics”; he died on a flight four years ago, after surviving one in 1978 that took his first wife.)

Darting between fund-raising events in his SUV, I asked Begich whether his father’s death encouraged him to become a politician. “You know, when my dad died, I was ten,” he said. “If you ask any of my [five] brothers or sisters, I was the least likely ever to get into politics.” Instead, when he was in his late teens, he helped start an under-18 nightclub called The Motherlode—a mining-themed club for minors—and got a license to sell jewelry. 

He eventually planned to get into the real-estate business, but when he saw an ad to become a youth-programs coordinator, he changed course. “I thought it’d be fun,” he said. “It pays less. It’s working for the government. It’s a civil servant job.... But I knew something about kids. And so I applied. I failed the typing test three times ... but eventually, I got the job. And that kinda got me more engaged in the policy end of it.”

As we drove around Anchorage, Begich told me about his humble political beginnings, and it was easy to forget that this was a man at the center of one of the most important races in the country. It was also disconcerting to consider how much nastier his life was about to get.

Alaska is a notoriously difficult place to poll, but everyone assumes the contest is a dead heat. What has so far been a gentlemanly race between a good man who lost his dad here and a warrior who followed his wife here is about to change, for the meaner—a function of the stakes and the money that’s gushing in. Not just Rove’s millions, but Harry Reid’s, too. The moment Begich and I emerged from his SUV, a man paid to follow his every move with a camera asked why Begich opposed more oil-drilling jobs for Alaskans. (A strange question, since Begich has voted for more drilling and promises to vote for more.) Once we were out of camera range, Begich turned to me and smiled. He looked, for a moment, like a politician. “They will try anything,” he said. “But I know the state I grew up in. They don’t have that.”