While Alaska’s Republican U.S. Senate candidates battle it out in the primary, the incumbent, Democrat Sen. Mark Begich, is free to focus on the general election.
Begich is using the lull before the storm to shore up his rural base — and with good reason.
It was the rural and Alaska Native vote that helped Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski win her historic write-in campaign in 2010.
And it was this same electorate Begich credits with helping him beat incumbent Ted Stevens in 2008.
“Rural communities were very helpful in getting me elected,” said Begich while on a campaign swing of Southwest Alaska. “Great turnout. Great support out here.”
On Friday, Begich opened campaign offices in Bethel and Dillingham. Others are planned for Nome, Barrow and Ketchikan. The Democrat candidate for governor, Byron Mallott, will also use the rural offices as a base of operations.
At the Bethel headquarters, there was a large, handmade sign with a greeting in Yup’ik.
“Waq’aa! Mark Begich,” it read.
The senator walked into the building to the sound of applause.
“I, for one, am very happy we’re opening a field office in Bethel,” said Ana Cooke, president and CEO of the Bethel Native Corporation.
“As rural people, we can feel disenfranchised sometimes,” Cooke said. “It’s through the election process that we get to reiterate our presence and our impact.”
Just before opening his Bethel headquarters, Begich made a boat trip to Napaskiak, a community a few miles downriver from Bethel.
The aluminum skiff was piloted by the mayor of Bethel, Joe Klejka. A shortcut to the village was suddenly aborted when one of the passengers on the boat called out, “Back off! It’s pretty shallow.”
The skiff carrying Begich took the longer route to Napaskiak; a reminder that there’s probably no Senate campaign like this in America, where candidates must reach out to voters scattered over vast distances which can involve risky travel.
When the boat pulled up to the muddy banks of the village, Begich clambered out laughing and joking about the mud as he made his way to the wooden boardwalks that serve as the main transportation corridor for four-wheelers and bicyclists.
Begich pointed out the speed bumps.
“I love it when you can see boardwalks with speed bumps,” Begich said.
In Napaskiak, there are no roads in and there are no roads within the community — just a network of boardwalks.
The cost of fuel is one thing Begich always asks about when he travels to remote communities. In Bethel it’s around $7 per gallon. In Napaskiak, it’s at least $8.
The next stop: the village store. Begich had a New York Times reporter in tow, Jeremy Peters, who is the newspaper’s political correspondent.
Peters’ coverage of Begich’s campaign swing signals the growing national importance of the Alaska U.S. Senate race.
Begich pointed out the price of goods brought in from Anchorage; more than $5 for a can of fruit cocktail. A large jar of pickles was more than $11.
“Who can afford to buy this?” Peters asked.
“King salmon is a huge staple,” Begich responded. “If they can’t fish for the salmon, this is what they have to pay for.”
The king salmon crisis was what Begich heard the most about during his trip to the Bethel area.
Last season, the run was at a record low. This summer appears to be a repeat of the last.
So far this year, king salmon fishing has been off limits to allow enough fish to make it to their spawning grounds in the upper reaches of the Kuskokwim River drainage.
Begich told tribal leaders he believes there needs to be more research out in the ocean to find out what’s causing the king shortage.
Some of the other issues in Napaskiak include a failing water and sewage system, cutbacks in hours at the village health clinic due to the loss of federal funding and anger over what many tribal members feel is the federal government’s failure to honor its tribal obligations.
“We’re being treated like dogs, you know,” said tribal administrator Steven Maxie, who is upset about the short staffing at the Native hospital in Bethel.
The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation recently announced massive layoffs, in large part due to federal budget cuts.
Begich took every opportunity to reinforce his “village cred.”
“I get a lot of criticism from the state, because I spend a lot of time on tribal issues,” Begich told tribal leaders.
He frequently mentioned the need for more support for tribal governments throughout his visit.
The state and Alaska tribes have had a troubled relationship for many years. It’s one the Republican Party has been slow to embrace, which could be a strike against it in Native communities, run mostly by tribal governments.
Begich also emphasized his Washington experience.
“Both our senators, myself and Lisa, are now on the appropriations committee. That’s a rare thing to have both U.S. senators on that committee,” Begich explained to Napaskiak tribal leaders.
The small tribal council office was packed with people, including children crouched on the floor.
Esai Twitchell, a tribal leader from the neighboring village of Kasigluk, said he hopes Begich and the other candidates will focus on the king salmon shortage.
“The salmon issues need to be in the forefront and discussed throughout their campaigns,” Twitchell said. “In order for you to understand the enormity of it, you have to be affected. You have to see it firsthand.”
Twitchell said Begich’s campaign visits to the region should help to solidify support in his region. But, he said, in the end it doesn’t matter to him whether a candidate is a Democrat or a Republican. What matters, Twitchell said, is their knowledge of the issues and what they bring to the people.
Over the years, Republicans have generally not spent much money courting the rural and Alaska Native vote.
But Peter Goldberg, the new Alaska Republican Party chairman, believes this will change after the August primary, once a nominee is selected.
He said the national GOP is already planning a high-profile presence in Alaska.
“The co-chairman of the Republican National Committee and the secretary of the Republican National Committee have already come to Alaska,” Goldberg said. “That says something of and by itself.”
Goldberg picked up a GOP brochure from Colorado from his desk to show as an example of the party’s changing priorities.
“It’s also in Spanish, so they’re reaching out very hard there, so they’re reaching out all over the country,” Goldberg said.
Similar minority outreach is planned for Alaska at the next state central committee meeting in September. Goldberg said leaders from various ethnic groups will be asked to speak to the committee and talk about what they feel is important.
Goldberg also believes the Republican Party message will resonate with rural Alaskans.
“It’s about everybody having a job, everybody being able to support themselves, not the state support them,” said Goldberg, who revealed that he grew up in a family which was once on welfare – but with a good education, he was able to become successful.
“There’s a lot of joblessness in Native villages. There’s no reason for that,” Goldberg said.
Begich doesn’t view federal aid to rural Alaskans as a handout.
“They’re just saying, ‘Help us help ourselves,’” Begich said.
“Because the energy is here. The enthusiasm is here. The desire is here,” he said. “Sometimes I sense they feel they are forgotten.”
But in an election year where the leadership of the U.S. Senate hangs in the balance, there’s a good chance rural Alaskans will remembered.
“The amount of money that’s going to come in here from outside groups on TV and radio is going to be overwhelming,” said Max Croes, who works on the Begich campaign.
Randy Ruedrich, the former Alaska GOP chairman, said such spending is to be expected in a race with a vulnerable incumbent.
“I think we’re already approaching $20 million of committed money,” said Ruedrich of spending by Democrats and Republicans.
Ruedrich — who is credited as the architect of the current Republican majority in the House, the Senate and the governor’s office – believes the party’s dominance will influence rural voting patterns. He also said rural Alaskans have lost considerable clout in the Legislature due to population changes.
“As the state grows, the rural west has not kept up, and instead of the rural area having six house seats, we’re now down to four, ” said Ruedrich, who noted that four Western Alaska legislators in the House have joined the Republican majority, a sign the GOP is gaining more acceptance in what have previously been Democratic strongholds.
Republican strategists fully expect Begich to get a lot of rural votes — but the question is, how many? And will they be enough?
In 2010, Lisa Murkowski faced a three-way race against Republican Joe Miller and Democrat Scott McAdams, so the rural and Native vote gave her a slight edge, as well as big campaign contributions from Alaska Native Corporations.
In a two-way race, Begich may not be able to draw enough Rural votes to push him over the top, especially if Republicans are able to build on growing support from Native communities dependent on oil and gas development, as well as mining.
Six Alaska Native corporations recently launched a campaign in support of Senate Bill 21, the oil tax reform measure the Republican majority pushed through the Legislature last year but is now up for a referendum in the August primary.
Republicans say this is another sign of the inroads their party is making.
In all, there are 11 candidates in the U.S. Senate race: two Democrats, four Republicans, three Libertarians and two Alaskan Independence Party members.
The three top-polling challengers are Republicans: Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, former Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan and Joe Miller, who defeated Murkowski in the 2010 Republican primary.
Republican strategists say Begich will be tough to beat because he’s a fighter and a seasoned campaigner.
For now, Begich is working hard to get a head start on the Republican challenger he’ll face in the general, telling rural Alaskans they have an opportunity to make history; to decide whether Democrats will keep control of the U.S. Senate.