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for people who care about the West

Alaska’s Senate race and the fate of the West’s public lands

Republicans look to Alaska in their bid to overtake the U.S. Senate.


Alaska Senator Mark Begich isn’t just fighting for his job this election season — he’s fighting for the fate of the U.S. Senate. Republicans see the vulnerable Democrat’s seat as their best chance for gaining control of the chamber, and their interest in the 49th state was apparent in yesterday’s primary, the most expensive in state history. More than $15 million from sources as distant as George W. Bush and Karl Rove were funneled into the race, and the real battle is just getting started.

So who will Begich be facing in November’s general election? Yesterday, primary voters chose former Alaska attorney general and natural resources commissioner Dan Sullivan over Tea Party candidate Joe Miller and Lieutenant Gov. Mead Treadwell. Sullivan, a graduate of Harvard and Georgetown and a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps Reserves, ran the most well-funded campaign (he’s the one Rove and Bush threw their weight behind), and pledges to fight federal overreach in Alaska and beyond.

If you’re still wondering why you should care about an obscure race in a distant place, though, here are three reasons: the outcome could affect Native American justice, the environment and public lands across the West.

Alaska Senate Republican candidate Dan Sullivan. Courtesy the Sullivan campaign.

That’s because while Begich is by no means a staunch liberal — he supports Keystone XL, Arctic oil exploration and voted alongside Alaska Republican senator Lisa Murkowski 80 percent of the time — he was also one of the few major politicians to come out against Pebble Mine, the controversial copper mine proposed for the headwaters of one of the world’s most prolific salmon fisheries. Begich is also openly concerned about ocean acidification and climate change, and he supports repealing the “Alaska exemption” in the Violence Against Women Act that limits protection for Native Alaskans. ....

Sullivan, on the other hand, says that the science behind human-caused global warming is unconvincing and that he resents the EPA and other federal agencies meddling in Alaska’s environmental issues. Strongly conservative, he’s refused to discuss whether Native women should be included in the Violence Against Women Act, and admitted on MSNBC that he hadn’t read the bill that would repeal the “Alaska exemption.” Though his campaign recently sent the Alaska Dispatch a statement that Sullivan would support it, the Alaska branch of the National Organization for Women still sharply criticizes Sullivan’s ambivalence.

Incumbent Senator Mark Begich. Courtesy the Begich campaign.

There are also the larger implications of a Republican-controlled Senate. In the current session, House Republicans passed bills that would weaken federal agencies’ ability to conserve streamflows for wildlife; block EPA regulations on coal-fired power plants; and restrict the president’s authority to designate national monuments. All were stymied by the Democratic Senate and will expire at the end of the year, but if both chambers gain a Republican majority in the next session — as could happen if Sullivan wins Begich’s seat — similar bills could glide through Congress and onto the desk of President Obama, whose veto power only stretches so far.

Yet despite its reputation as being red as a boiled crab, Alaska is a tough place to call a race. In its last mid-term election in 2010, Miller beat Sen. Murkowski in the primary only to watch her sail past him as a write-in candidate in the general election. More than half of voters are unaffiliated with a political party, and the state’s remoteness makes polling notoriously unreliable. Who might ultimately grab the Senate seat is still anybody’s guess.

Krista Langlois is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2.