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Alaska’s local issues play big in fight for Senate

October 6, 2014

KODIAK, Alaska (AP) — The wars in the Middle East, immigration and the economy are dominating the national discourse heading into the November congressional elections. But the Democratic Party’s hopes of maintaining control of the Senate may hinge on issues like genetically modified salmon or fishing quotas.

That’s because those issues are crucial to voters in Alaska, one of a handful of states with fiercely contested Senate races.

Republicans are counting on a victory over Alaska’s Democratic incumbent Sen. Mark Begich to be among the six new seats they need to take control of the Senate. With Republicans poised to maintain their majority in the House of Representatives, control of the Senate would greatly widen their power to thwart President Barack Obama’s agenda during the final two years of his term.

Begich’s Republican challenger, former state Attorney General Dan Sullivan, rarely misses an opportunity to mention Begich’s name in the same sentence as Obama, who is unpopular in conservative Alaska.

Meanwhile Begich, the gregarious former mayor of Anchorage and son of a beloved congressman who died in a plane crash in 1972, tries to turn every discussion toward Alaska’s unique culture and issues. And Republicans acknowledge that if anyone can take advantage of the sometimes surreal nature of Alaska’s politics — small-town, person-to-person campaigning in a state as big as Texas and California combined — it is Begich.

“Alaskans like him when you’re talking about local issues, but that’s only if you forget the $17 trillion deficit, if you forget about immigration and amnesty, if you forget foreign policy issues,” said Republican state Rep. Bill Stoltze, who was a guest at Begich’s wedding but is backing Sullivan.

Alaska has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1968, and it’s unclear Begich can defy the partisan undertow that has endangered Democrats in far more evenly balanced places.

But the Democratic showed his ability to leverage local issues recently last week when Alaskan Steven West docked after spending four months about as far from the midterm elections as someone can get: aboard a fishing boat in the Bering Sea. He found Begich at the Kodiak Island Brewing Co., and West’s first question was not about foreign affairs or Obama’s controversial health care law, which the senator backed.

Instead, it concerned fishing quotas that West, 54, blames for damaging the island’s primary industry and the state’s largest employer. Begich told him that he heads a Senate subcommittee with jurisdiction over the nation’s fisheries, and he promised that the next round of quotas would be more fairly distributed.

“I appreciate that you’ve got our backs,” said a satisfied West.

Begich’s efforts to focus on Alaskan issues haven’t been flawless, however. The one major stumble of his campaign involved a spot attacking Sullivan for not seeking a stiffer sentence against a man later accused of a double murder and sexual assault — a spot taken down after the victims’ family protested it.

At the fisheries debate this past week on Kodiak Island, famed for its huge brown bears and large fishing port, Begich’s campaign had a table bedecked with lawn signs and buttons. One had a slash mark through the word “Frankenfish” in protest of genetically modified salmon.

Sullivan initially passed taking part in the fisheries debate, only to reschedule after a columnist noted that no candidate had ever skipped it and won a race for Senate in the state. Still, Sullivan didn’t have a table.

Begich, who wore a salmon pin on his lapel, won cheers for praising the electronic monitoring of fisheries. Sullivan drew groans from the crowd after admitting his brother owns a business that buys some farm-raised fish, though the business also buys Alaskan seafood. Sullivan hit back, repeatedly linking Begich to Obama.

Earlier in the day, as Begich won over West with talk of the state’s fisheries at the brewery, other patrons studiously avoided making eye contact with him. For them, Sullivan’s reminders about Begich’s Democratic ties are persuasive.

Cliff Zawacki, 50, took issue with Begich’s support of 2010 health care law. After a shaky rollout out, the program has extended insurance coverage to millions of Americans who had lacked it. But Republicans say it is an example of unmanageable government overreach, particularly a requirement that Americans acquire insurance or face tax penalties.

“I don’t appreciate a senator who doesn’t vote the way the state wants,” said Zawacki, a retired Coast Guard officer who voted for Begich in 2008. “He voted for health care, which the majority of the state didn’t want. But he didn’t care.”


Follow Nicholas Riccardi on Twitter at www.twitter.com/nickriccardi

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