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Politics & Government

Democrats, GOP Throw Money At Alaska's U.S. Senate Campaigns


In its quest to take over the Senate, the GOP has poured millions of dollars into the tiny media market of Alaska. The Republicans hope to unseat the incumbent Democrat Mark Begich, but the Democrats have responded in kind, making this the most expensive campaign in that state's history. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports from Anchorage, a lot of the ad work can be boiled down to an argument over whether a Democrat like Begich can represent a state as conservative as Alaska.


SENATOR MARK BEGICH: How are you doing? How are you guys doing?

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: At a Begich phone bank in Anchorage, last night the candidate looked tired. It's an exhausting business campaigning in a state the size of Alaska. And he'd just flown 700 miles round-trip to do meet-and-greets in Fairbanks, and back here in Anchorage, his day still wasn't over.

BEGICH: I'm going to go from here. I've got to go into a call-in show in about three minutes. I'll do that from the car. We'll head out to East Anchorage and do random drop-bys. I'll probably go to Wal-Mart and start walking through the aisles until I get thrown out.

KASTE: Begich is a man in an uphill fight. This is a Republican state, and he spent the last six years trying to reassure Alaskans that he's not what he calls an East-Coast Democrat, or worse a West-Coast Democrat.

BEGICH: First off, as an Alaskan Democrat, you're pro-gun; you're pro-development; you're interested in developing the right way and doing it responsibly.

KASTE: But that sounds kind of wishy-washy compared to this...


DAN SULLIVAN: How about a law to make sure we disarm EPA agents?


KASTE: That's the Republican challenger, former State Attorney General Dan Sullivan, sharing a stage yesterday with Mitt Romney. If elected, Sullivan promises a policy of getting the feds out of Alaska's business, especially when it comes to developing oil, gas and mining.


SULLIVAN: Imagine if we had a federal government that was a partner in opportunity, a partner in progress, not an obstacle that they are. The sky would be the limit for Alaska.


KASTE: Sullivan promised to push for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. ANWR is a long-standing hot-button issue in Alaska politics. And Begich says he has tried in Washington to get that area opened up to oil. And he points to his success in getting federal permission for more drilling elsewhere, including a controversial plan to drill in the Arctic waters north of Alaska.

Most voters here get this. Even an ardent Republican like Suzie Morris freely admits that Senator Begich has been pro-oil.

SUZIE MORRIS: He has supported the state as much as he can, but he does belong to a party that puts a stop on all that because they do not want ANWR. And Harry Reid is the one that rules the roost.

KASTE: It seems no matter how pro-development Begich tries to be, he's still seen as one of the votes keeping the environmentalist Democrats in charge of the Senate. Faced with that reality Begich has tried another tack. He's been subtly telegraphing to certain communities here that he is an environmentalist on some issues. For this, he has a secret weapon - a network of campaigners located in native villages. Corey Cejka is one of those. She's been working for Begich in the village of Togiak, though two weeks ago she says she had to take a day off from campaigning.

COREY CEJKA: I got a call from my husband, and he's like, hey, I need you to go down to the beach and wait for us. We've got a bear, and we have to skin it.

KASTE: When she's not skinning bears, Cejka trying to convince her neighbors to vote for Begich. She talks up his opposition to things like genetically modified, farmed salmon and a proposed goldmine that fishermen worry will taint the waters of southwest Alaska.

CEJKA: I just have to sit down with them and say, hey, look, you know, he has been in Washington plugging away at trying to keep your land and your salmon safe.

KASTE: It's an environmental message that's not really getting played up in Begich's TV ads, but it's one which the campaign hopes will get out delivered in person in some of the more remote parts of the state. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Anchorage. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.