This is the last in a five-part series, “Fed up in Alaska,” exploring local issues that voters will take to the polls this November.
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Campaign ads for incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Begich and former state Attorney General Dan Sullivan often focus on who is more Alaskan.
The ads have grown more caustic in recent weeks as the race has become tight — as few as 3 percentage points separate the candidates in polls — and one ad appears to have backfired, and it could end up costing Democrats their majority in the Senate.
The ad, which ran in late August and early September, linked Sullivan to a light sentence given to a sex offender, Jerry Active, in a crime that shocked Alaska. Active had a felony record and in 2009 pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a minor. As a result of database error that failed to account for his earlier convictions, he was let free on a plea bargain in March of 2010. He was sent back to prison for violating his probation. After being release in May 2013, police say, he committed a horrific crime, killing an Anchorage couple and raping their 2-year-old granddaughter.
Begich’s ad accused Sullivan of letting sex offenders get away with lenient sentences. Although Sullivan was attorney general at the time of the plea bargain, he did not sign Active’s plea deal, and his department was not the only one responsible for checking Active’s records.
That prompted a fierce backlash from some. “It was a huge mistake,” said Ivan Moore, a pollster who has been tracking campaigns in Alaska for 24 years.
The Sullivan campaign was quick to fire back with an ad of its own. “You may have seen the dishonest ads, using Jerry Active’s heinous crimes for political gain,” the ad said.
After seeing the ads, the family of the murder and rape victims expressed outrage at how the notorious case was being exploited for political gain. Because the latest case against Active has yet to go to trial, they worried that the attention could taint the jury pool.
Media controversy followed, and the family’s attorney released a letter telling both candidates to pull their ads. The Sullivan camp complied immediately, but Begich refused to pull his ad until a few days later.
Despite its short run, Moore thinks Sullivan’s counter ad was effective. “Oftentimes in politics the counternegative has the potential to be much more effective and devastating than the negative ever could be,” he said.
In a traditionally red state, Begich has had mixed approval ratings, often tied to public perceptions of President Barack Obama’s administration. Sullivan has repeatedly questioned Begich’s voting record, saying Begich has voted with Obama 97 percent of the time, accusing him of not attending Senate votes and of taking money from outside interest groups. Begich has attacked Sullivan for his record as attorney general, alleging Sullivan let Alaska be “ripped off” by making a bad pension deal with a New York financial firm.
A staggering amount of money has been spent on both campaigns, showing the importance the Alaska race holds for the rest of the country. A review by the Center for Public Integrity shows that by Oct. 13, Begich had run 15,300 TV spots and Sullivan had run 9,024. Those numbers do not include ads run by allies and outside groups.
Begich promotes himself as “Alaska’s son,” a senator who has backed the state against powers in Washington, D.C., increasing steel business by advocating for more drilling, and overseeing the building of the Dena’ina convention center when he was mayor of Anchorage. Meanwhile, Sullivan charges Begich with being a Washington insider who allows outsiders to interfere in Alaskan politics.
Sullivan, who wasn’t born in Alaska, is facing questions about his residency. Although he said on his official declaration of candidacy that he has been a resident of Alaska since 1997, several media outlets reported that he also claimed residency in Maryland at various points since 1997.
One of Sullivan’s ads features professional snowmobile athlete Cory Davis saying, “Mark Begich acts like Mr. Alaska when he wants our vote, but the truth is he votes like Obama and his D.C. friends.”
The ads seem to be working for Sullivan, who is a relative newcomer in Senate politics. He has led Begich in virtually every poll in September and October. He had a 3 percentage point advantage in a mid-September poll by Public Policy Polling, a North Carolina–based firm often seen as Democratic leaning. New York Times, CBS News and YouGov polls showed the scales tipping in Sullivan’s favor by 6 percentage points. And a mid-October Rasmussen Reports poll showed Sullivan taking 48 percent of the votes, with Begich getting 45.
Yet the various polls also show that 6 to 16 percent of Alaskan voters are still undecided. Moore believes the controversial crime ads may have cost Begich crucial votes in what is expected to be an extremely close vote.
“[Begich is] a very, very politically savvy person who just gets it in an intuitive, hard-wired way — what is smart and what isn’t,” Moore said. “I don’t know why that happened. It’s crazy.”
To view the “Fed up in Alaska” series, tune in to “Al Jazeera America News” with John Seigenthaler this Mon. to Fri. at 8 p.m. Eastern time.