Oct 22 3:36 PM

In tight race, Alaska Senate candidates play to the Bush

Sen. Mark Begich (D-Ala.), left, who is challenged by Dan Sullivan, visits native constituents in Napaskiak, Alaska, May 30, 2014.
Ruth Fremson / New York Times / Redux Pictures

When Republican Senate candidate Dan Sullivan visited Alaska’s largest rural hub city for the first time Friday, even his tour guide supported the other guy.

“All (rural voters) hear on the news is that Republicans are going to cut Medicare, the Republicans are going to get rid of Obamacare,” said Buck Bukowski of Bethel, who greeted Sullivan wearing a handlebar mustache and a sticker blaring his loyalty to incumbent Democrat Sen. Mark Begich. “The Bush needs those entitlements.”

“The Bush” is the collective name Alaskans use for the small towns and remote villages outside the major population centers of Anchorage and Fairbanks. The areas offer wide-open spaces and abundant hunting, but few social services or urban conveniences, and are often only accessible by planes, boats or snowmachines.

Alaska may be a red state — President Obama lost here 55-41 in 2012 — but the borders are blue. In far-flung communities like Bethel, a soggy coastal town 400 miles west of Anchorage, where the mayor raises sled dogs and prisoners in the area penitentiary fish for their own food, Begich toppled incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Stevens by a margin of 2-to-1 in his last election [PDF].

That Sullivan, Alaska’s Attorney General under former Gov. Sarah Palin, made his first trip to Bethel and surrounding villages over the weekend is a key step for the campaign in what has become the most expensive political race in Alaska history. Every village vote will count, and Begich has aggressively pursued rural Alaska for years. The Democrat launched a robust ground game, including three times as many field offices as his opponent across the state, to win voters face-to-face.

Sullivan doesn’t have to win the Bush to win Alaska, however. Simply eroding Begich support there could seal his victory. After Bukowski chatted with Sullivan at length he still planned to vote for Begich, he said. But Sullivan seemed genuinely interested in his ideas on veteran care. “He wrote all that down,” Bukowski said.

The problems of rural Alaska are staggering. Villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, where Sullivan also visited the communities of Hooper Bay and Aniak over the weekend, are among the poorest in the country. More Alaskans are on welfare, per capita, than in any other state. The Indian Justice Commission has labeled law enforcement services in rural Alaska the worst in the nation, with residents in one village saying they were forced to wait 14 hours for authorities to arrive by plane following a recent double-homicide.

Those rural issues and others will take center stage in a candidate forum Friday at the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN), the largest gathering of villagers, tribal leaders, Native corporation officials and rural residents in the state. Sullivan, who’s been endorsed by Alaska senior Republican senator, Lisa Murkowski, a popular figure among rural voters, has told the group he would target high heating fuel and housing costs in the Bush.

Begich said he would continue to support a program that allows Native corporations to win lucrative no-bid government contracts, and touted efforts to fund high-speed Internet service to communities so remote, many homes lack running water.

The convention starts against a backdrop of relentless attack ads aimed at both candidates, paid for by outside money. Heavy hitters from Hollywood, such as Barbara Streisand and J.J. Abrams, have written checks for Begich. Sullivan has received millions from Ohio, home to his wealthy extended family. Inside Alaska’s borders, scattered donations reveal rural support for Begich, with Sullivan receiving no money from donors in the three Yup’ik Eskimo communities he visited over the weekend. 

On Saturday, as Sullivan sought to make inroads in villages, Begich had returned to the Anchorage neighborhoods to shore up support among voters who twice elected him mayor of Alaska’s largest city.

“This area, in this country, is the most diverse,” Begich told a folding chair crowd Saturday at Boys & Girls Club hall in Mountain View. A man born in Kazakhstan played a tango on the accordion as Begich arrived. Cold cuts and campaign fliers for Democratic candidates like U.S. House long-shot Forrest Dunbar — “Run Forrest!” — lined buffet tables.

Standing below folded basketball hoops, Begich teased his foe, who has granted few interviews over the course of the election. “He isn't going to survive in Washington,” Begich told the crowd. “It’s a piranha pit there, they’ll chew up your knees and legs until you fall over.”

Between speeches, Begich dismissed recent polls that showed Sullivan leading 48-45.

Alaskans in some faraway villages are more likely to communicate by VHF radio than by iPhone. Despite the potential of rural voters to swing an election, pollsters haven’t figured out how to predict what they will do at the ballot box, Begich said.

“Do I believe this race will come down to the wire?” Begich answered his own question, “Yes.”

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter