Primary season is a bit of an odd duck, often referred to by its unflattering (but accurate) nickname “silly season,” when candidates ignore the average voter and appeal directly and quite vociferously to their political base. In Alaska, it’s a much more one-sided, odd duck. Democrats — clawing their way toward any electoral gains with less resources (read: members) — have stayed away from primary contests. Primary contests cost money. That money will be needed to campaign against Republicans in the general. Thus, the strategy of the left has over time become: “What primary?” (With a side of “but remember to vote on the oil tax referendum!)
Among the Alaska GOP, however, primaries thrive. Especially among the current crop of candidates vying to square off against first term Democratic Senator Mark Begich.
The current front runner, former Alaska Attorney General Dan Sullivan, has been branding himself as the establishment choice. As such, he skipped the debate, suggesting a strategy of dismissing the primary as a foregone conclusion, hence allowing him to get a jump on a post-primary campaign. After voters weigh in and the August primary is in the past, the “silly season” is over, and all candidates will embark on a mad dash to abandon their ideological corners and try to out-Alaskan the other. Carhartt-laden photo opportunities by the dozens. If you wondered why the Democrats are working the “Sullivan is an Outsider” narrative into the ground, there’s your answer. Begich, embracing the Democrats’ view of the primary as a formality, is posturing for the general.
The three other candidates have to figure out how to stay relevant, cut through the millions of dollars of non-stop advertising from Begich, Sullivan, and SuperPACs gearing for a two-way race, and figure out ways to compete. In Republican primary politics, the tea party has found an exploit helping those efforts. Take a hard right turn. Rely on the most conservative voters to show up on August 19.
No one used this exploit better than Joe Miller in 2010, when he upset Alaska’s senior Senator Lisa Murkowski by a margin as slim as it was unexpected. This year, despite getting a late start and experiencing failure to raise significant funding, Miller hopes to garner support through grass roots campaigning and an unabashed anti-establishment platform. He told the crowd, during last week’s senate candidate forum (hosted by the Conservative Patriots Group and United for Liberty) that both parties had worked together to hi-jack the process. “I stood up to the establishment in 2010,” he said on Wednesday night. “We’ve got to have somebody that has a backbone of titanium to stand up and say, hey, if we have to, we’re going to shut down government and stop what’s going on.”
Mead Treadwell has a harder sell job with primary voters. Perceived by many as a moderate, the current Lieutenant Governor has grounded his campaign on protecting states’ rights and an objection to federal overreach. “I’ve seen the government stuck on stupid from both sides,” Treadwell said in his opening statements, touting his 40 year record of “battling for Alaska for control of our fishing rights, battling for filling the pipeline, battling the feds and the EPA to bring decision making home.”
So far, he’s found little traction and even less funding than Miller. Daily rumors of Treadwell dropping out have come and gone, all of which he has firmly denied.
The third candidate present was Mark Fish, who just announced his candidacy on the Libertarian ticket two weeks ago. Fish served as a campaign staffer for Sarah Palin and Joe Miller, and told Wednesday’s audience that he was running because “Libertarians are not talking for themselves with a mic. That’s why I’m here.” But, apparently, he’s not alone. Fish, who isn’t competing with Miller, Treadwell, or Sullivan during the primary, might have seen his race get a bit trickier over the weekend, as former party chair Scott Kohlhaas filed to run on Friday.
Mead Treadwell’s Key Distinctions.
Campaigns often focus on using candidate forums to emphasize key statements while avoiding as many specifics as possible. In Republican politics, this generally translates to every question being turned into the opportunity to say “freedom” and “liberty” as many times as possible, while narrowly avoiding any actual policy statements or proposals. While those words were not shied away from, last week’s forum was also overflowing with issues, fielded by candidates eager to actually speak bluntly about them.
All three candidates expressed unwavering desires to get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency, abolish the Internal Revenue Service, enact term limits on elected officials, replace federal income taxes with some variation of the FairTax, repeal the Obama administration’s signature health reform law, eliminate Common Core education standards, enact more nullification laws, and end the United States’ participation with the United Nations.
On many other topics, however, Mead Treadwell used the forum as an opportunity to advertise a more nuanced approach. In campaign politics, where audiences want clear “yes” and “no” answers (among primary voters, the louder the better), Treadwell often resisted the temptation. In contrast, Fish and Miller agreed on every single question asked of them.
Treadwell dissented from the majority opinion regarding immigration reform, supporting a limited pathway to citizenship — though he emphasized the need to bolster border security. He also diverged from his opponents on jury nullification, which would give jurors the ability to acquit defendants if they disagree with the law that was broken. When asked if he supported the concept, he flatly said no. He said that voter ID laws couldn’t be mandated at the federal level, because it wouldn’t be constitutional to force the states to recognize a national identification. And he broke with colleagues, opposing the repeal of the Seventeenth Amendment.
On the topic of climate change (or, “the climate change agenda,” as referred to by Miller) Treadwell said that Alaska needed to take the lead on the changing arctic.
Good Cop, Bad Cop.
Miller tried to establish himself in contrast to Treadwell, framing his more moderate positions as a weakness that highlighted what he found most objectionable about the elected officials Americans send to Washington D.C.
[T]he reality is, those of you who think “anybody-but-Begich” is your mantra, that’s a fool’s errand. This country has been destroyed by both parties. We have got to turn it around. And bringing somebody into that position that’s going to go-along, get-along, not be a fighter, that’s going to make compromises here or there because, you know, we’ve got to get something done — they’re not going to be the people with a backbone of titanium necessary[.]
Miller charged that Congress needed people more akin to Senators Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), willing to shut down the government and vote against raising the debt ceiling. He said that voters needed to elect people who had “nothing left to lose,” and pointedly went after Treadwell for his relationship with Sen. Murkowski, as well as his past support for Democrats, like former Anchorage Assembly members Matt Claman and Sheila Selkregg.
In one of the night’s most notable moments, Treadwell responded sharply to the criticism. “We live in a town, Joe, where I think it’s important people know each other, work together, and you can be friends without checking your principles at the door,” he responded. “Conservatives need to stick together. And if I have lines of communication with people across the aisle, I’m not going to apologize for it one minute.”
“I like Mead. I genuinely like Mead Treadwell,” Joe Miller offered in his closing, applying the strategy one final time. “But you know what? I’m not going to vote for Mead. I’m not going to vote for Mead because we don’t need nice guys in Washington D.C. We don’t.”
If there was one takeaway from the night, it was that this was absolutely not true.
The good news for Treadwell is the approach seemed to resonate with the audience, though not enough to give him the evening’s straw poll win. Miller took the night. And Fish was the big loser.
The Lackluster Libertarian.
Given a sympathetic crowd, a chance to sell the Libertarian Party as a viable alternative to the two party system, and an opportunity to elevate his campaign, Fish was a flop.
Despite the pointed back and forth between the two Republican candidates, Fish used a lively round of debate where candidates posed questions to each other to ask Miller if he had any intentions in hopping into the senate race as a Libertarian, and offered Treadwell the softest of whiffle balls: “Do you own a fire arm, and if you own more than one, what is your favorite?”
In another less-than-stellar moment, he was asked by the moderator what he would do to restore Fourth Amendment rights. He said, awkwardly, “You know, I don’t view the Constitution as something I’ve memorized. It’s a text book.”
Treadwell offered him a text copy as a lifeline. It should be pointed out, this came after he objected to the legality of two other amendments.
In a forum meant to help candidates find political traction and separate themselves from their opponents, Fish did so. In all the wrong ways. Rather than rise to the occasion to speak toward Libertarians as a viable alternative, he effectively served the purpose of a buffer between the two other candidates as they went at each other. Instead of a strong declarative statement, like: “My name is Mark Fish, and I’m asking for your vote,” his closing statement featured the less-than-bold pronouncement: “I am a Libertarian, and I have no intention of dropping out of this race.”