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Begich’s Next Move

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Photo by Bryan Dunagan.

Despite having lost reelection to the United States Senate after only one term, US Senator Mark Begich (D-Alaska) is a man with a surprising amount of options, and a rare opportunity for a political comeback. Usually in modern politics, a defeat at the national level would preclude a politician from considering further office, but recent trends and the potential political landscape in future elections means that nobody has written Begich off yet.

Discussions in the past weeks have already begun to focus on Begich’s political future, including a possible run against either Congressman Don Young (R-Alaska) in 2016, or a race against Begich’s former colleague, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), when she runs for reelection the same year. There have also been calls for Begich to challenge current Senator-elect Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), who just defeated him, when he is up for reelection in 2020. All three potential challenges, of course, have a wide variety of undecided factors that could make a challenge by Begich much easier, or much more difficult.

In a year that saw Democratic Senators lose their seats by wide margins in Arkansas, North Carolina, and Colorado, and which also saw Republicans take control of the US Senate for the first time since 2006, one of the surprising factors was how close Begich was to keeping his seat. The 2014 midterm elections took place halfway through President Barack Obama’s second term, and were considered a bad year for Democrats. Several polling experts cited the “Six Year Itch,” which predicts losses of seats for the party of an incumbent two-term president due to voter fatigue, especially in conservative states like Alaska.

Many of the Democratic Senators up for reelection this year were elected in red states like Arkansas and North Carolina in 2008, a banner year for Democrats. In Arkansas, fellow Democrat Mark Pryor lost his seat by 17 points, in a state very similar to Alaska in many respects. In 2012, Arkansas supported Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney by 17 points, and the state has not supported a Democrat for President in 18 years.

Rep. Young, a 43 year incumbent, will be 83 years old in 2016, increasing doubts about his effectiveness and ability to represent Alaska. Because seats in the US House are allocated based on population of a state, Young has been our sole representative in the 435 member body for over half his life, and longer than many Alaskans have been alive. While the argument can be made that, as the senior most Republican representative, Don Young wields influence and power disproportionate to Alaska’s small population, events in recent years have belied this. Due to several ethics complaints against him, House Republicans have stripped him of his seniority, and it is unlikely at this point that he will regain his lost clout. If Mark Begich were to run against Don Young, it would be one of the few times a former US Senator has sought a seat in the House of Representatives.

If he runs, though, it may depend on several factors. Suggestions have also been made that Republican Governor Sean Parnell, recently defeated in his bid for reelection by the unity ticket of independent Bill Walker and Democrat Byron Mallott, may make a play for the seat. In 2008, as Lieutenant Governor to Sarah Palin, Parnell challenged Young for the Republican nomination, losing by just over 300 votes. Parnell, who has indicated he is not done with professional politics, could make a much stronger bid for the seat, eight years later.

Begich may also seek Alaska’s other US Senate seat, held by Murkowski. Murkowski , first appointed to the seat in 2002 by her father, former Alaska Governor Frank Murkowski, will most likely be seeking to retain her seat. In 2010, during a year described as a tea party and conservative wave across the country, she was defeated in the Republican primary by Joe Miller, and written off by the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Six years after running an insurgent write-in campaign after losing her own party’s nomination, Murkowski will be in a much stronger position to fend off challengers, given her gains in seniority. As Republicans gain control of the Senate for the first time in 8 years, Murkowski is in line to assume the chairmanship of the US Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has wide jurisdiction over US energy policy.

Miller, the 2010 Republican nominee, has not ruled out a rematch against Murkowski. While Murkowski has gained seniority and clout in the Senate, she has also carved out a moderate stance on many social issues, which could lead to trouble in the next Republican primary. Despite having voted for a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in 2004, she has since altered her position, most notably by voting to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in 2010, and in 2013 becoming only the third Republican Senator to come out in favor of marriage equality. Miller could make a strong play for the Republican nomination on those grounds, which could help Begich in a possible challenge. Begich would have a much better chance of returning to D.C. facing Miller instead of Murkowski as the Republican nominee. While there is some chance of Miller igniting the traditionally conservative base of the Alaska Republican party and again toppling Murkowski in a primary, she will likely run a much stronger primary campaign, wary of potential conservative challenges.

Part of Begich’s motivation to oppose Murkowski in the 2016 election may be resentment over how much effort Murkowski put into supporting Begich’s 2014 challenger, Senator-elect Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska). Begich aired an ad touting his bipartisan credentials, noting that Senator Murkowski and he voted together 80 percent of the time. The ad irked Murkowski, who not only objected to the ad, but actually sent a cease and desist letter asking him to stop distorting her record. She called on Alaskans to send a partner to the senate who she could work with. This belied her moderate record and burnished her own conservative credentials ahead of a potentially nasty Republican primary in 2016.

The ad by Murkowski was panned by many Alaska Democrats, who felt betrayed that she would so readily attack her colleague and defy her own moderate tendencies in the Senate, especially given how many Democrats and independents abandoned 2010 Democratic nominee Scott McAdams and supported Murkowski — providing her with a clear margin of victory over Joe Miller. The ad, which allowed Begich to reach out to independent Murkowski supporters, may cause Begich difficulties in a potential challenge to Murkowski. If he does run against her, he will be hard pressed to contrast his own moderate record in the Senate with Murkowski’s. While hewing to the Democratic standard on many issues, Begich has also taken several moderate to conservative positions on key issues, including gun control and energy issues.

As Senator, Begich voted against an assault weapons ban bill that emerged in the Senate following the deadly massacre at Sandy Hook elementary in 2012. He has also taken a leading stance against Obama adminstration energy policies, including active support of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Rrefuge. Given his moderate voting record, it may be difficult for Begich to effectively distinguish his record from Murkowski’s.

Begich may instead choose to take his time in reentering public life, possibly running for his old seat in 2020, when Dan Sullivan will be up for reelection, assuming he chooses to run again. If he does, Begich would not be the first defeated Senator to set up a rematch, joining colleague Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) in running against their opponent for a second time. Begich can take solace in the fact that Shaheen won her rematch, in 2008. A rematch between Begich and Sullivan would possibly center on Sullivan’s actions in the Senate over the next six years, during which the United States will select a new President and undergo three national elections, potentially drastically altering the political landscape both nationally and in Alaska.

Whether he chooses to seek his old seat, challenge Senator Murkowski, or face off against Don Young for a US House seat, he will almost certainly face a friendlier political landscape. He’ll no longer have to contend with a an unpopular incumbent President Barack Obama, and many believe 2016 could be a wave year for Democrats. One factor that could assist Begich in a challenge could be a lack nationalization of the election, as happened in the recent campaign. Begich recently made the argument that the 2014 Senate campaign between himself and Dan Sullivan focused less on his own record as a Senator, and more on President Obama, nationalizing the race. Support of or opposition to Obama would be irrelevant in a 2020 rematch, taking place two presidential elections after Obama leaves office.

Even a 2016 campaign, taking place in the final months of the Obama presidency, would undoubtedly focus less on the incumbent President. Begich may also choose to seek the Governor’s mansion in 2018, when incumbent Governor Bill Walker’s first term ends. Walker has not yet given an indication of whether he will seek a second term.

While the dust has barely settled on the most expensive election in Alaskan history, anticipation is clearly growing for Begich’s next move.