JUNEAU — The candidates in Alaska’s hotly contested U.S. Senate race began their final push as early voting in the state began Monday.
Democratic Sen. Mark Begich cast his ballot Monday in Anchorage. His campaign has been urging Alaskans to vote early and Democrats held early voting events around the state.
Begich also announced a new round of ads defending his work as mayor of Anchorage, a job he held before his election, which Mike Anderson, a spokesman for the senator’s GOP rival, Dan Sullivan, called an attempt to rewrite history.
Meanwhile, Sullivan, fresh off a visit to rural Alaska communities, was scheduled to be in Homer and Anchor Point, ahead of a candidate forum Tuesday in Soldotna.
The forum is one of six remaining debates or forums that both have agreed to attend ahead of the Nov. 4 election.
The race is being closely watched because it could help decide control of the Senate. Republicans want to gain six seats nationally and see Begich as vulnerable.
Sullivan has shown a fundraising prowess, bringing in $2.8 million to Begich’s $1.9 million during the latest quarter, while Democrats have focused attention on a ground game that includes 90 paid staff, with about 40 of those in rural communities.
While both parties have picked up registered voters since primary, the biggest gains in registration have been seen among independent voters, the largest voting bloc in the state.
Begich, who announced his debate schedule before the primary, has expressed frustration with what he sees as Sullivan’s reluctance to debate more often. Begich last week shared the stage at a forum for high school students with Libertarian candidate Mark Fish and non-affiliated candidate Ted Gianoutsos.
“People know me,” Begich told supporters during a recent trip to Juneau. “I will go anywhere, I will talk to anybody about the issues we care about and making sure Alaska is protected.”
Sullivan spokesman Thomas Reiker said Sullivan looked forward to the remaining debates to talk about his record and Begich’s record of “voting with Obama.”
That has been a consistent refrain for Republicans, who have sought to make the race a referendum on President Barack Obama and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid. Obama lost the 2008 and 2012 elections in Alaska by wide margins.
Republicans have seized on a Congressional Quarterly analysis that Begich voted with Obama 97 percent of the time, though groups have cited numbers as low as 91 percent. The 97 percent figure — often cited by rank-and-file Republicans — refers to recorded votes in 2013 in which Obama took a position and many of the votes were on nominations. Begich broke with Obama on increased gun restrictions, according to a breakdown of the votes.
Begich has taken issue with the figure, saying it’s not an accurate reflection of his work, and cast himself as an independent voice, unafraid to stand up to Obama. He also has played up his work with Republican members of Alaska’s congressional delegation, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who chided him for using her image in some of his ads. Murkowski has endorsed Sullivan.
For their part, Democrats have tried to paint Sullivan as an outsider with rich parents trying to “buy” a Senate seat; Sullivan family members have donated to pro-Sullivan groups.
Sullivan is originally from Ohio but his roots in Alaska, where his wife is from, date to the 1990s. He left Alaska in 2002 for a White House fellowship, military service and work as an assistant Secretary of State, before returning in 2009, when he was appointed state attorney general. In 2010, he became natural resources commissioner, a post he held until his Senate run.
Anderson said Sullivan’s focus in the remaining two weeks will be on issues he’s been touting for months, including energy development and pushing back on federal overreach. He said Sullivan also plans to draw attention to national security issues.