With the absentee ballots finally all counted, Alaska Sen. Mark Begich (D) seems to have lost to former state attorney general and natural resources commissioner Dan Sullivan (R). Begich’s campaign has not yet conceded.
While his first two years in office were unusually progressive for a Democrat from such a conservative state, Begich flipped around once Republicans took control of the other chamber and made it less likely that progressive votes would see the light of day as laws. Begich’s primary strategy for re-election, therefore, over the past two years was essentially to vote quite conservatively (the relatively few times anything major or controversial came up) and campaign as barely-a-Democrat, the tried and true (but often not so successful) campaign strategy of an embattled Red State Democrat.
His opponent, Dan Sullivan, ran an ad blitz that very simply refuted the entire premise of Begich’s re-election effort, observing that he had voted with President Obama 97% of the time while in office. One can perhaps quibble with the methodology to reach such a count, given that it involves including minor and non-controversial votes as well as appointee confirmations. But Democrats have used that line repeatedly in the past against Republican Senators who voted for George W. Bush’s policies, so I’ll let it stand.
Plus, it seems to be a pretty persuasive number to voters. And that latter reality exposes the fatal flaw of the “Wait I’m Not Really A Democrat, You Guys” strategy of re-election in conservative states. If the number were much lower, maybe that argument would work, but when it’s 97%, you can’t really talk your way out of that, even at the margins by disputing methodology and the like.
Essentially, if your opponent runs ads saying you vote 97% of the time with the president (and head of your party!), you have two campaign scenarios. Either you embrace and defend that record, explaining why that’s actually a good thing (and hope you’re convincing enough to bring a plurality or majority of voters along with you) … or you’re going to lose no matter what anyway, so there’s nothing you can do or say at that point, even if you claim to be a Republican in all but name. If they’re not open to the idea that being 97% aligned with the Democratic President is a good thing, you’ve already lost…
It probably makes logical sense to choose the path of embracing your party affiliation for a number of reasons. First, you don’t look like you’re running away from your own record or principles, which voters aren’t overly fond of, since it makes you look unreliable and a bad bet for future votes. Second, if there’s any chance of turning that “weakness” into a strength by converting voters into believes that the 97% record was a good idea, that will make for a much stronger re-election bid. Third, if there’s no way at all that your voters can be persuaded that 97% was a good thing, you’ll never be able to run far enough away to make it irrelevant.
Both choices — embrace fully or reject fully — are basically hail mary passes to win re-election under bad conditions, but the first course provides more routes to victory (and demonstrates a clear reason to pick the Democrat over the Republican), while the second course is extremely narrow and unlikely. The second depends a lot on the opponent proving to be an unelectable dud or revealing himself/herself to be a crazy person. And Dan Sullivan had a ton of other ads defining himself very positively and refuting any suggestions that he might be extreme. Whether or not that’s true remains to be seen, but it certainly closed down that avenue of attack effectively.
On several occasions, Sullivan’s wife, Julie Fate Sullivan, an Alaska Native and frequent companion on the campaign trail, appeared in ads defending her husband’s ties to the state and his positions on women’s issues.
It’s also true that there have certainly been other Democrats in conservative states or districts who have sought office as conservatives, voted consistently conservatively and against the party, and hung on for quite a long time, but the consistency and deep commitment to basically not being a Democrat is a key part of that approach. And it only works until they make some personal misstep and become a target of a good Republican recruit who usually picks them off right away.
But in the case of a difficult race seeking re-election with a mixed or progressive record in a conservative area, sticking to your guns to explain why that has been in everyone’s best interest is probably substantially more persuasive than “I’ve made a huge ideological mistake and promise not to make it again.” And if nothing else, running proud of the party and the party’s agenda — instead of being ashamed of it — might make some voters converts that enable another Democrat to have an easier time in the future. In contrast, running away from the Democratic Party implies no one should vote for it, and voters tend to take that to heart.